A different ball game

As Argentina celebrates its bicentennial year, there has never been a better time to be posted to London, says Carlos Sersale, the country’s energetic new Ambassador, who is eager to revive relations with Britain.

British influence in Argentina has always been strong, even before independence. “San Martin – our ‘Washington’ – spent five years in Britain where he was exposed to the revolutionary ideologies. Britain, as Europe’s industrial powerhouse, had an interest in the liberation of the continent to penetrate these new markets,” explains Sersale, an expert in economic diplomacy.

In the century following independence, the two countries enjoyed a robust trading relationship: Argentina exported its beef and Britain built Argentina’s railways. Britain also exported its culture and its sports, notably football and rugby, the latter being one of the Ambassador’s passions (he was a flanker in his younger days).

The decline in relations started in the 1940s with political and economic instability in Argentina, while Britain turned its attention to the European project. Ties broke when the dispute over the Malvinas/Falkands islands led to war and has strained relations ever since.

But the confrontational approach over the islands has proved “a disaster,” says Sersale, who prefers a more measured approach. “My work is to create the conditions so that some day we would be able to have a serious dialogue on the sovereignty issue. We have no doubt about the right of our claim from a legal, historical and geographical point of view but that doesn’t prevent us from treating that issue with respect.”

This pragmatism is very much in the spirit of the new Argentine government led by the Cambiemos (‘Change’) coalition, headed by President Macri, who wants a relationship of “mutual respect” with Britain. Sersale shares his optimism following Foreign Minister Sir Alan Duncan’s visit to Buenos Aires where he and Argentine Foreign Minister Susana Malcorras agreed on a broad bilateral agenda, that includes strengthening economic ties; promoting human rights and combating organised crime; collaborating on science, technology, culture, sports and the environment; and cooperating on the South Atlantic issues.

Sersale is relishing the challenge, buoyed by his experience as Ambassador to South Africa (2006-2016), where relations during his term flourished – from exchanges on human rights and reconciliation, to research collaboration and friendly rivalry over wine, rugby and BBQs.

Here in London he will be translating the President’s three priorities – combating narco-traffic, poverty reduction, and strengthening Argentina’s institutions – into foreign policy. And there is no time to waste.

As an economist at the UNDP, he saw Argentina slip down the Human Development Index from 34 to 49. “What is of more concern is that previously, income distribution was relatively balanced but now there is large inequality and 30% of people in Argentina are actually classified as poor,” remarks the Ambassador.

Halting that decline requires jobs and investment, and boosting economic ties is the Ambassador’s forte. Britain’s decision to leave the EU will add a different dimension to economic relations, he admits. “We consider the UK to be the most open country of the European Union and a gateway to the European market. The UK was also the most supportive of an EU-Mercosur trade agreement. On the other hand, Brexit opens up new opportunities for Britain as a potential partner for trade and investment.”

Structurally the British and Argentine economies complement each other, he says. The UK exports services, Argentina exports commodities; Argentina is rich in minerals, the UK has mining expertise; Argentina wants to increase its use of renewable energy from 1% to 20% by 2025 and British technology can help achieve that target. Other sectors ripe for investment include agriculture, and the tech and creative industries. A big part of the government’s stabilisation programme is a package of investments worth US$170bn, including infrastructure development based on the British model of public-private partnerships.

Macri, macro, micro
The President is working hard to create the right business environment – at a macroeconomic and microeconomic level, which is why he has the moniker: Macri, Macro, Micro.

The Ambassador recently took top British business representatives to a global investment summit in Buenos Aires to learn about the opportunities on offer as well as the government’s measures to tighten fiscal discipline, remove barriers to trade, get tough on corruption and improve the regulatory framework for investors.

With four out of the six Latin American “unicorn” start-ups being Argentine, the Embassy hosted a conference where British investors learned how the government was investing in skills and using innovative financing models to create the right ecosystem for Argentina’s vibrant start-up and SME sector.

Improving Argentina’s institutional capacity through technical cooperation is also something the Ambassador will be focusing on during his posting: “In every activity I undertake I try to include an institutional component because we can learn a lot from British institutions.”

An experienced multilateralist who worked on nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation UN reform, Sersale believes Britain and Argentina would make a formidable team cooperating at a global level, too.

As UK-Argentine relations enter a new phase Ambassador Sersale, a seasoned rugby player, is ready to take the ball and run with it.

Embassy Editor Elizabeth Stewart interviewed the Argentine Ambassador on 16 August and revised on 23 September