My Lords, the Statement to Parliament of my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary on 10 January outlined our response. We have issued our strongest objections to the decision by the Mercosur countries to deny access to Falkland Island flagged vessels. While we do not accept that the decision has any basis in international law, our priority has been to ensure that the trade and commercial links between the Falklands and South America are not compromised by this political declaration. We have achieved this.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that interesting reply. Does he agree that it would be desirable to restart direct discussions—not negotiations, since there is nothing to negotiate—with Argentina, since it is at Argentina’s behest that this action has been taken?
If I might alter slightly what the noble Viscount has said, no action has been taken. Brazil, Chile and Uruguay have all agreed to continue welcoming shipping if it is flying the British Red Ensign flag, which these ships fly. If there is an intention of action, that action has not led to any results at all. As for talking to Argentina, we have said all along that we are anxious to have sensible and creative discussions that could be of assistance to Argentina itself in the longer term, so long as we respect the wishes of the Falkland Islanders, which must be paramount in accordance with international law.
My Lords, what steps are being taken by our splendid ambassadors in the region to counteract the tactics of the president of Argentina’s Government in persuading Argentina’s neighbours to support its claims of sovereignty in this way? In other words, what advice is the Foreign Office giving to ambassadors on the ground to prevent other countries following suit?
I think we have been a little ahead of the game. Obviously, the intention of Argentina was, sadly, to obstruct the movement of Falkland Islands shipping. Before that could happen we secured, for a start, the full assurance of Brazil, Chile and Uruguay that they would continue to welcome shipping flying the British ensign flag and would not interfere with trade. We have every reason to believe that the same attitude will prevail in all other ports where Falkland Islands shipping may call. However, we have taken action. Our ambassadors have moved very quickly and we are, as I say, ahead of the game.
My Lords, following the question of the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, would the Minister agree that the best form of soft security for the Falkland Islands is very good, strong British relations with the South American neighbours of Argentina? Can he give us an update on what has happened to British relations with those countries and why this matter has come forward as it has in relation to Falkland Island flagged vessels? In particular, what has happened, since the present Government took office and since President Rousseff took office as the new president of Brazil, to the excellent relations that the British Government had with Brazil under the Labour Government and President Lula da Silva?
As far as relations with Latin America generally are concerned, I can safely say that where excellent relations existed before they have been built on and are even more excellent now. Considerable effort has been made in renewing and expanding our relations with Latin America. My right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary was in Brazil the other day on a highly successful visit. My honourable friend Mr Jeremy Browne, the Minister of State, constantly visits Latin American countries, and visitors have come here with whom I and others have liaised very closely. We feel that we have a very good developing relationship, which includes the expansion of our embassy facilities and capabilities in the region.
There are many theories as to why agitation and tension have arisen over this matter. Many experts point to the possible discovery of commercial deposits of oil around the Falklands. It is a great pity that Argentina bowed out of the hydrocarbons declaration, which would have enabled it to benefit from these developments on the oil front. However, it decided to stand aside from this and, instead, to complain and apparently grow angry at what is happening. That may be one reason.
We keep in constant touch with all our EU colleagues on this matter and have had considerable understanding and support. Inevitably, there are different perspectives but the general acceptance is that in international law the Falkland Islands people have the right to have their wishes respected and that any development in the future must be guided by those wishes. If they wish that to change, it will change; if they do not wish it to change, it will not change.
Will my noble friend tell the House whether the reports are accurate that almost all the ships that are now banned from visiting Mercosur ports while flying the Falklands ensign are owned by Spanish shipping companies? In light of that, are we having discussions with the Spanish about the commercial damage which is clearly being done to them through this ban? Are we having discussions with Chile, as President Kirchner has asked the Chilean Government to ban commercial flights to the Falkland Islands?
We have had discussions with Chile of a thoroughly positive nature. It is one of the countries that has agreed to accept ships flying the British Red Ensign. I cannot comment on the ownership of some of these ships. I have seen rumours in the media but I have no further information on that matter.
My Lords, while jaw-jaw is better than war-war, as Churchill said—the great man died 47 years ago today—there is no doubt that the world is extremely dangerous. We have seen the events of the Arab spring and in Libya and tensions in the Falklands. Will the Government look at their reduction in defence spending bearing in mind these very serious risks?
The question of our capability and abilities to meet the world’s tensions are under constant review. Some of these involve military and others soft power deployments. However, the noble Lord is absolutely right that dangers are springing up. Later this afternoon this House will have to deal with another one that he did not mention—that is, the situation in the Strait of Hormuz.