Almost four decades on from the end of the Falklands War, another serious threat is troubling its 3,400 population. It seems that the British archipelago in the South Atlantic was a missing link in the Brexit negotiations. The Falkland fisheries sector, which accounts for the major part of their revenue, has been hit with crippling EU tariffs. As a UK overseas territory, the Falkland Islands, together with all the overseas countries and territories of EU Member States, benefited from something called the EU Overseas Association Decision. For the Falkland Islands this meant tariff and quota free market access to the EU.  With more than 90% of Falklands fisheries exports going to Europe, the imposition of tariffs of between 6 and 18% since the beginning of the year has had a devastating impact.

The Falklands Islands Government (FIG) worked closely with the UK throughout the tortuous Brexit negotiation process, as we struggled to secure an ongoing future trading relationship with the EU.  But the European Commission stated that as they had no mandate to negotiate on behalf of their own overseas territories, they were unwilling to discuss the UK's overseas territories. The Falkland Islands’ case was allowed to fall by the Brexit wayside and FIG’s plea to avoid the imposition of tariffs on their fishery and other products was never heard. The situation for Islanders is acute, as they have no viable alternative markets for these exports.

Their nearest neighbour is, of course, Argentina, whose president Alberto Fernandez has stepped up his country's claim to the ‘Malvinas’ islands, as they call them, since he was elected at the end of 2019. Now the Argentinian foreign minister Felipe Solá has gloated over the Falklands’ predicament on Twitter, stating that it was his country’s intervention which led to the EU’s decision to exclude the remote archipelago from the Brexit negotiations. Solá claimed that he had contacted the EU’s foreign policy chief, the Spanish Socialist Josep Borrell, and had briefed the foreign ministers of all 27 EU Member States on Argentina’s claim of sovereignty over the Islands. He implied that this was why the EU decided not to include the Falklands and South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in the Brexit deal. 

When Josep Borrell was Spain’s foreign minister he repeatedly tried to promote Spanish claims to Gibraltar, so his dislike of Britain and sympathy for Argentina has come as no surprise. However, Borrell should be careful what he wishes for as there are considerable Spanish interests in the Falklands fishery, not to mention 6,000 Spanish jobs.

The biggest fishery in the Falkland Islands is for squid, all of which is imported into the EU via the Spanish port of Vigo. Whilst the squid is caught in the Falklands, the processing, added value, distribution, and marketing occurs in Spain. In 2019, Spanish/Falklands owned companies caught 79,000 tonnes of squid worth £180 million, under licences issued by FIG. If tariffs continue they will face huge financial losses, potentially abandoning the fishery and wrecking the Falklands economy.

FIG sells licences for catching two kinds of squid, Illex and Loligo. The Loligo exists wholly in Falklands waters and, as a result, is carefully conserved by the Islanders. By operating their licensing system for the squid fisheries, FIG is able to analyse carefully the exploitation of the Loligo squid, closing the fishery at the first sign of over fishing. However, the Illex squid is a migratory species which utilises the continental shelf, crossing both International waters and other Exclusive Economic Zones, Including that of Argentina, on its way to the Falklands. The Islanders are seriously concerned that their efforts at conservation are being undermined by unrestricted fishing on the high seas, where hundreds of Chinese fishing vessels spread out over vast areas of the South Atlantic and hoover up thousands of tonnes of Illex squid before they reach the Falklands’ 200-mile exclusion zone. It has been a long-term ambition of FIG to have a regional fisheries management organisation, covering a vast geographical area of international waters in the South Atlantic, to provide protection for the species.

Although it is Spanish companies in joint ventures with Falkland businesses, that are primarily involved in the Loligo fishery, there are also Taiwanese and Korean vessels buying FIG licenses for fishing the Illex squid. Their trawlers are registered in the Falklands and jointly owned by Falklanders and European or international companies, who pay income tax to FIG on their profits. The substantial income netted from the sale of these licenses keeps the Falklands economy afloat. Indeed, their superb education, health and infrastructure facilities enjoyed by the tiny population on the Islands, has been paid for largely by squid money. All of that is now under threat.

In a Christmas message to the Islanders, Boris Johnson promised that the UK Government will help them “face the change that is coming.” He blamed the EU for their intransigence on the issue and pledged “You have not been forgotten or neglected.” Teslyn Barkman MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly), who holds the FIG portfolio for Natural Resources, has summed up the crisis. She says: “We’re a British Overseas Territory and although we may be located 8,000 miles away from the UK in the South Atlantic, we are very proud to be part of the UK family. In our 2013 referendum, 99.8 percent of Falkland Islanders voted to remain a British territory. We have worked very hard to build a strong, self-sufficient economy which is thriving. However, our stable financial foundations are now at significant risk from the imposition of these fisheries tariffs by the EU.”

Almost four decades on from the Falklands War we must not ignore their appeal for help.  Since 1982, Falkland Islanders have used their freedom to progress their economic, social, and political development, using their self-determination in every sphere of life. Apart from defence, the Falkland Islands do not receive any other financial assistance from the UK. Their internationally acclaimed sustainable fisheries sector is the cornerstone of their economy. It is of critical importance that tariff free access is restored and the Islanders now look to Boris Johnson and the UK Government to intercede with the EU on their behalf