Hugh Mortimer: Preserve the quality of life

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In the nineties in London, I worked on EU common foreign policy and we actually had a couple of delegations from Slovenia visit us. This policy was, at that time, very much focused on the western Balkans and the break-up of Yugoslavia. I knew about Slovenia and Croatia, which became a part of the agenda of the EU, their recognition in the early nineties and the war that followed that. So I was familiar with the subject. After that I went to Turkey, and then wanted to come back to CE. The logical thing to choose was, of course, the small state that was on the threshold of joining NATO and the EU. As a first ambassadorial appointment it was a place you would like to get. I must say, therefore, that the country seemed what I expected it to be, in the sense of what people had said was like Switzerland – topographically beautiful, small, compact, quite Austro-Hungarian in its influences but nonetheless there is a Slavic influence – and a Mediterranean one as well. I served in all these countries anyway, so I could imagine a mixture of these cultures and it was actually like I predicted. What I did not expect is how high a quality of life could be. That was a real surprise. The main message I would leave to anyone – and I have been in the foreign office for thirty years around the world – is, without a doubt, it the pleasantest hosting that I’ve had anywhere. The quality of life, not only in terms of the material life style, but also in things like safety on the streets to the affordability of the restaurants, proximity of places to visit, etc. – I think Slovenia scores much higher on the charts than any other country in that respect. That’s nice to hear. During your mission here as the ambassador, some significant things have happened. Slovenia became a part of the EU, NATO and the government has changed, which are sort of ‘formal’ things. But did you see any changes in the society itself during this time? Yes, I think that Slovenians themselves have become more conscious of their own profile in the rest of the world in the last four years. But I think it’s quite a slow process and, I have to admit, rather slower than I expected. I learned there is a consciousness now that has grown up with entry into the EU and NATO. Slovenia, like everyone else, lives in an interdependent world, where you may not love the people you live with, but you have to get on with them. I think there is a sort of greater sense of need to engage with the outside world in order to maintain Slovenia’s profile. Slovenia had this image of being slightly inward-looking before and there was a certain perceived ‘sniffyness’ about its neighbours, certainly in the mid nineties, like ‘the last thing we would have to do is to have anything to do with Yugoslavia, so let’s turn our back on that and let’s look northwards’. Probably from 1997 on, when the Europe agreement was signed with the EU, there is a consciousness that if you want to join the golf club, you have to add value, and the way Slovenia adds value is by acting as a jumping-off point, the connecting point with its former “back door”. So there has been a change, but a slow change. And if I follow on from that and say what impact have EU and NATO actually made in Slovenia, it is surprising how little the impact has been in this last year. One would have assumed that joining something so politically important and economically significant as the EU would have had a discernible impact on lifestyle and culture in Slovenia. But from the British point of view, rather surprisingly, it hasn’t made much of a difference. Not this first year. The next year may change. So these changes are progressing faster in other countries that have joined the EU recently? Yes. But that is simply a function of economic reality. Transitions that were necessary in CE countries in order to join the EU, started in Slovenia back in the nineteen-eighties. This transformation of society, the switch-away from essentially a state-controlled society to one based on free-market and personal enterprise, this process of change was much more gradual in Slovenia than that forced upon other CE countries. That gradualism has advantages and disadvantages. The advantage is political stability and social security. The changes that have occurred in other CE countries have been set on ground zero. Economically they had to start again from scratch at the end of eighties. The pace of changes there has been much more rapid, and because of that, you could perceive that pace as much more sudden than in Slovenia. Do you think the new government will up this pace? I think even the last government perceived that perhaps the gradualism that characterised Slovenia’s political and economical reform process was probably, in a sense, too gradual, or it had to reach the end of its gradualism. A step change, an acceleration of a process was needed, not as an ending itself, but in order of preserving of what Slovenia has. And if you say, there is a lifestyle and a quality of life that is worth preserving, that is in the essence of being Slovenian, then you have to ask yourself: “Is this going to last forever, or do we actually have to do something in order to preserve it?” I think it still is a question that needs to be addressed directly. But I think that both the last government and this government realized that you have to be more progressive in political and economic reform in order to maintain the standards to which Slovenians have become accustomed. …not so reserved? Exactly. I think people have realized it won’t just go on like this forever, unless you actually do something about it. And it is not for me, as an ambassador, to say what Slovenians should do. You should find the solution; diplomats can sometimes identify the problem. Who are the people, the individuals of the Slovenian political scene, who you particularly like or who have impressed you the most? I don’t have any particular favourites and even wouldn’t give you any particular surprises there. I would say that Dr Rupel [foreign minister] is a very professional and extremely hard-working representative of this country. It’s the hard-working aspect I’ve noticed most about that. Clearly your current president is a man of great courage and intellectual ability and his predecessor was very much a man of the people. It’s not for me to comment on their political skill or their position on the political spectrum, but I would say that those leaders, those prominent personalities have been men of some stature and I think it is quite difficult as a man from a large country with a long history, like the UK, to put oneself in the shoes of people who had to pioneer the independence of a small country. That requires quite a lot of engagement and commitment and, as I said, a degree of political courage as well. …and if you take these personalities as individuals, regardless of their political function, as individuals who may be otherwise interesting, accessible or nice to talk to? I would say generally, the thing that you notice as a foreigner in Slovenia is how easy it is to access the ministerial level. How friendly and open people are. That also goes for business class. There are some very good entrepreneurs and there are a lot of people that are conscious of the importance of the entrepreneurship as a means of making this competitive edge that is going to make the difference in Slovenia being a progressive, leading, model country of the region. Are there any – or what do you consider the most important, or even problematic, issues in Slovenian – British relations? I don’t think we have any huge bilateral political issues. Both countries probably have a need to recognize how each country can benefit from each other’s. The Slovenian perception of the UK has, sometimes, not being particularly well understood. That’s partly a function of history – we’re not neighbours, and if you’re not a neighbour, people view you differently. The Brits are generally perceived as slightly stuffy, conservative, etc., and the brand of the UK is quite interesting. You may say we’re all like ‘bad food and cricket’, but then you can point at British fashion or pop-music and people would say: “Yes, of course, you are quite right.” But it doesn’t affect the brand, because the brand overlays the progressive, innovative, diverse and multi-cultural aspect of Britain, that is a sort of ‘modern Britain’. We have a branding problem with Slovenes, but Britain also has a branding problem with Slovenia. We’ve never heard of it. There is a similar problem for both sides, from different ends of the telescope. What Slovenians need to do is to profile themselves in the UK and in Europe and say: “Hey, we are an interesting country. We’re a model country for the 21st century.” If you go into a bar and say “I am Slovenian,” people just shut down. But if you go into a bar and say “I’m a Brit,” people react in a Pavlovian way. They would presume the sort of person you are. This common perception is important and it is something to work on. Otherwise, I think the relationship of a small country on the edge of Europe and a large country on the edge of Europe have a certain commonality of view, which people find rather surprising to hear. There are different problems, but nevertheless from our own, domestic political perspectives – the same. For example: the UK has an image of not being particularly friendly to the EU, because we are very anti-federalist. We want a European union of member states, not a federation of member states. We want to preserve a nation-state as the principal actor. So does Slovenia. You have only been independent for 14 years. You have a national identity you want to preserve. It is not defined in terms of blood-ties, but in terms of culture and language. How do you do this in the EU, where the nation states become a secondary issue? So there is a common agenda, which is interesting. Otherwise, there aren’t any major problems there. I would like to see more trade. I work a lot on this and it is quite hard to do. Why? It’s partly because, from the British point of view, Slovenia is a small market. Only 1.9 million – who cares about 1.9 million? So the point would be – don’t look at Slovenia as the end market in itself. Look at it as a place where you find a Slovenian partner and then you go and do business in the rest of the region. That is beginning now to get through. Last year, for example, trade, our exports to Slovenia, didn’t actually increase very much over the previous years, but exports to other CE countries actually went down. So we’re doing pretty well in Slovenia. We also want to invest more in Slovenia and we are big foreign investor. …and the UK’s citizens are highly interested in buying property… There is a huge increase, which is a perfect connect with the advent of cheap airlines. The whole tourist industry also is a huge way of dealing with the problem of ‘identifying first’ and profiling the two countries. In Ljubljana there were more British tourists than any other foreign group. A very positive aspect of EU membership, for both countries, is also the free movement of workers, which we have granted, uniquely with the Irish, to all the accession countries. The second of course – like it or not – people want to learn and study in English. If you are a Slovenian student, as from September last year, you pay the same university fees as British students – 1100 pounds per year. That has created an exponential increase of interest in what the UK has to offer. Is there a thing, an act by the Slovenian people or government you would particularly oppose or support? It’s perhaps odd coming from a Brit, but I think that Slovenia has been very successful at making the social market model of capitalism that actually works, which Brits have not. It is so politically incorrect to just talk about social market capitalism, where reliance on private sector has been a main driving force of the economy, which I think is right for Britain. But I think in small countries, the more socialist, collectivist approach that is very evident in Slovenia, straight enough – more evident than in other CE ex-communist economies – actually works, and it works because Slovenia is small. In small states, like Swiss cantonments, you can do this sort of thing because they are mono-cultural and not very diverse. There is a social cohesion, which creates political cohesion. It’s fascinating that the difference between the highest earners and lowest earners is only a factor of six. In small states you can afford to be collectivist. An example of social engineering, which quite impressed me, is, for example, how there is not much support in this country for teenage pregnancy. However if you get a job, and you have a child, you have a whole year off paid by the government. In the UK, we have a huge incidence of teenage pregnancy, because it is being paid a lot of support in that respect. This is an example of how to cut down an undesirable teenage pregnancy rate, but nonetheless, you put a huge burden on the employers and the state in terms of maternity relief. Another impressive thing about Slovenia, comparing it to the other successor states of former Yugoslavia, is how you have managed to distinguish between nationalism and patriotism. People are quite proud of being Slovenian and always want to come back to Slovenia. But it is quite inclusive. It’s not sort of “outsiders are bad”. …but it may depend towards whom… You may be right, but I meant to say that you are much more polite to foreigners than to each other (laughs). You are known as a very sociable person, admired for your approach to ‘common people’. Is it only a matter of your personality or does it – in a way – have something to do with a fact that Slovenia is small and these relations also get downsized? People normally perceive an ambassador as a man coming out of a limousine with at least two bodyguards… Well, that’s again a part of the strange perception of the British ambassador, a man with a Rolls-Royce, who speaks with a funny accent… But that’s not true. Most ambassadors are actually like me, and we also have a hard job convincing people that we are ordinary human beings. Yes, I think it’s a part of personality, but it’s easy to do that in Slovenia, people warm to that, they quite like it, they don’t want to be dominated by someone they can’t relate to. And if you did behave like that, you would be a very lonely person. It’s a question of adjustment in personality. Outside your strictly diplomatic activity, what could you say was your most outstanding or exciting experience here in Slovenia? Boat races? Co-organising diplomatska regata was a real pleasure. I am by no means a sailor, but I’m keen on sailing. And it was great to be involved in this event. It was about using sports to bring people together, diplomats, businessmen and the local community – and the Italians and Croats as well. Apart from that, I wouldn’t sing loud about any particular events. I greatly enjoyed the cultural scene here – jazz, in the form of music and of course mountain-walking which I enjoy a lot. You are leaving for Berlin. Going there with easyJet? No, I’ll think I’ll come back here with easyJet. I’ll be driving from here in my car. It will be fun. I know Berlin very well, and again, I want to stay in Europe. I think my experience from a small state of the EU will be quite useful for working in a large one.