Exclusive interview with British Ambassador to Portugal

news: Exclusive interview with British Ambassador to Portugal

Tell us about the developments during your past few months as Ambassador, your travels and your impressions on returning to Portugal.

I’ve been here at a time of considerable change, some of it slightly unexpected, such as the changes in the political scene. Nobody was predicting elections quite so soon. But here we are, five months down the line, faced with the prospect of a new government.

There has also been a change in our network here. As part of a broader change in our organisation, we are also closing the office in Porto at the end of the month. We will be relying on an Honorary Consul, something that is also happening in other EU countries. We have also had, coincidentally, a high turnover of staff during the last few months. Half of the UK-based Embassy staff has changed in the last year. Since my return, I’ve been to the Algarve a number of times, Porto two or three times and Madeira. I haven’t yet got to the Azores, but hope to fairly soon.

It’s been interesting coming back and comparing everything to our last period here, between 1988 and 1992. I think that previous period saw the greatest changes, because Portugal had only recently joined the EU and structural funds were just beginning to flow in. But, when I arrived in 1988, that process had not really got underway. By the time I left, in 1992, it had got underway and taken off with a vengeance. For example, the motorway between Lisbon and Porto and the new road to Cascais had been built. And new hypermarkets had opened up, such as Makro, Continente and Jumbo.

Do you think there was more optimism in those days than there is now, given the economic downturn?

That was one of the things that did rather surprise me when I returned. It was a country that had hosted Expo 98 and Euro 2004. So I did expect a country that would be looking forward to the future with confidence. I think there is a sense of anxiety here and one can understand that because Portugal has been through a recession, something it is now coming out of.

I think it’s inevitable, after a period of such change from the late 80s to the mid-90s, involving such dramatic growth, that there would be a slowing down. It would have been impossible to sustain that momentum forever. That was a natural process. It’s understandable that people are a bit anxious about the future. But I hope that, with the new sense of political stability we have after the recent elections, given that we now have a government with an outright majority, that the Portuguese people can look forward to the future with more certainty.

The last Prime Minister, Pedro Santana Lopes, said that Portugal’s political instability was at the root of its problems. Do you agree?

This has to be put into perspective. It is undeniably a factor in Portugal’s perception of itself. But Portugal is a stable, western country. It may have had frequent changes of government but, underneath, it has tremendous democratic stability. That has been one of the great achievements since 1974. And the other important thing is that there is a great deal of common ground between the two major parties. Changes of government don’t necessarily lead to the swings in policy you may find in other countries. But, of course, a certain amount of political stability is desirable in any country – within reason, of course, because democracy is a system that brings changes every so often.

How can Portugal reclaim lost tourists? The Algarve, in particular, seems to be losing out to other destinations. Some of the response to Euro 2004 seemed disappointing.

When I was last here, if my memory serves me right, we used to talk of a million British tourists a year. Now we are talking of two million a year! So if there was a decline last year, it has to be kept in perspective and in the context of a trend that has risen considerably in the last few years. I’m not an expert on tourism, but it seems to me that, inevitably, Western European countries like Portugal will face competition from other cheaper or more exotic destinations, places which people can now visit for the same price.

My understanding was that, although the impact of Euro 2004 on the Algarve was not all that great, the impact of tourism in Lisbon was considerable. If you talk to people in Lisbon involved in tourism, they will tell you that Euro 2004 put them on the map.

But the answer, I would have thought, must be a concentration on quality tourism. Golf tourism, in particular, is an area where Portugal enjoys a tremendous comparative advantage. I’m not a golfer, but it does have the most fantastic courses. Every time I go to Lisbon airport, I’m struck by the number of people coming off planes from the UK with golf bags. So, without obviously turning our back on mass tourism, the area for future growth is quality tourism.

Would you like to see attention being diverted away from the Algarve to other parts of the country?

I’m not sure it’s a question of diverting attention away. I think that perhaps there is an inevitable process of diversification as tourists become more adventurous. They become interested not only in more exotic locations but also in other places in Portugal.

There’s another change, I think. When I was here before, you didn’t have many tourists outside the summer months, whereas now you do. I live not very far from the Jerónimos monastery and, when I walk down to Belém on weekends, the place is thronging with tourists in a way that just didn’t happen before.

Do you think that bad behaviour during Euro 2004 damaged the reputation of British tourists?

I was not here at the time, so I’m not speaking from personal experience. But from what I gather, these were isolated incidents unconnected to football. This was a small group of people in one place, who on one or two evenings created trouble, something not unique to Portugal or British tourists. I hope that this has not damaged the image of British people and I don’t think it has. The Portuguese I speak to, engaged in the tourist industry, are keen that Britain will continue to be the pre-eminent country of origin for tourists.

Do you think the Algarve is in danger of becoming a British enclave, isolated from the rest of Portugal? What can be done to integrate the expatriate community more?

The key is language. I find that, as a Portuguese speaker, all kinds of doors are open to me that would not otherwise be the case. You get so much more out of a place if you speak the language. For example, I think it’s crucially important that as many people as possible in our staff – the British staff here in the Embassy – speak Portuguese, both as a courtesy to our hosts and as a means of understanding more.

The British community in the Algarve impress me. The caricature of the expatriate community as one that just mixes with each other and speaks English is no longer appropriate. That’s my experience anyway. That may have been true 20 years ago, but I don’t think it’s the case now.

What are the prospects for Anglo-Portuguese trade? Is the relative weakness of the Portuguese economy a stumbling block and are people wary of investing in Portugal?

Prospects are good. British exports to Portugal grew by six per cent last year. I am also aware of one or two investments likely to be made in the near future in partnership with Portuguese companies. We are now part of a flourishing single market. I don’t think people are wary of investing in Portugal and they have no reason to be wary. Portugal, inevitably, is now competing with new EU members, many of whom have low labour costs, a skilled workforce and high rates of unemployment. Their geographic position in the centre of Europe means, inevitably, that they will attract overseas investment. But I’m not sure that this is a zero sum game, whereby if investment goes to one country another loses out. It’s a process whereby countries become more prosperous through trade and investment.

The new Prime Minister (José Sócrates) is a committed Europhile. Do you envisage an increasing convergence between EU countries?

There are many issues on which Europe puts forward a common view. Inevitably, 25 or more members makes it more complicated than when there were just 15. Of course, there have been issues that have divided us – notably Iraq – but there is an enormous political will for Europe to speak with a common voice on international issues, because the weight of Europe becomes much heavier as a result. On Iraq, after disputes and divisions, EU countries are coming together to help build a stable and prosperous country.

What do you hope to achieve by the end of your time here?

I think it’s important for ambassadors not to overestimate their influence. Relations between countries go much wider than relations between ambassadors or governments, encompassing as they do tourism and commerce. Some of these things we are involved in and others we are not. But if I can continue to contribute, in a small way, to the strengthening of ties between Britain and Portugal then I will be very pleased. I want to help to build commercial partnerships between Portuguese and British companies. One of my priorities is offering better services to British people and businesses. Cooperation on international crime and fraud is another growing area of importance. The central theme in all this is partnership with Portugal to push forward all these agendas.

What was your reaction when you and your wife heard you were coming back to Portugal?

We were delighted! We had four very happy years here the first time around. Of course, we’re back here in slightly different circumstances this time. Our children were very young when we were here before. It was a lovely place to bring up children because the Portuguese are so accepting of them. Our son was born while we were here last time. I remember taking our daughter to a restaurant in Lisbon when we first arrived (in 1988) and it was a completely different experience from taking a child out to a restaurant in London – much more welcoming and tolerant. Both our children are now in the UK. We also like the Portuguese people very much, so we are thrilled to be back.