By Markéta Šonková and Anna Formánková
Her Majesty’s Ambassador Jan Thompson has been in the Czech Republic for almost four years. Although she has spent lengthy periods in tough places, including war zones, during her diplomatic career, her job in Prague is no walk in the park either: she has to make sure that the relationship between the UK and the Czech Republic stays strong while Britain transits from an EU state into a non-member state. The topics of Markéta Šonková’s and Anna Formánková’s diplomatic interview were not only Brexit, but also Shakespeare, the position of a woman in diplomacy, as well as why there are cats at the British Embassy in Prague.
There is a history of modern relationship between the UK and the Czech Republic, dating back to the first Czechoslovak Republic. Due to historical circumstances, and also due to Britain’s initial hesitant approach towards further and long-term engagement in the continental politics, relations have been rather lukewarm at times in the past. So how do you personally perceive the bond between our two countries now and how do you think the ties could be strengthened?
I think the relationship between the UK and the Czech Republic is really, really strong, actually. I have found it strong ever since I arrived here in this country. There is a huge amount of affection for the UK in the Czech Republic, but there is also a lot of fondness for the Czech Republic in the UK. I am often struck by the connection when the Czechoslovak airmen flew with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War, and we are incredibly grateful to them. They were incredibly brave and incredibly skilled, and helped us to win the Battle of Britain, so we will be eternally grateful for that. One of the first things I did when I arrived here as Ambassador in the Czech Republic was to work with the British community here to erect a statue which stands in Prague now at Klárov. It is a statue in recognition of those brave Czechoslovak including Czech airmen, and it is an expression of gratitude from the British people to the Czech people for that bravery. It is a winged lion: the wings symbolise the fact this was the airmen and a lion because it was a symbol in both Czech and British heraldry. So that was one of the first things I did, we unveiled it the first summer I was in Prague, and every time I go past it I think of that connection between our two peoples.
There is a huge amount of affection for the UK in the Czech Republic, but there is also a lot of fondness for the Czech Republic in the UK.
But the relationship is really quite wide and deep, and in these days, when I spend a lot of time talking about Brexit and the European Union, I always love to say: ‘Britain is leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.’ And our relationship with the Czech Republic, for example, goes way beyond the fact that we are both being members of the European Union in recent years. We have a similar outlook in so many areas; we are both really strong free-trading nations, exporting nations, we have a very similar approach to competitiveness, growth issues which we work together on in the European Union, and of course, we both have nuclear energy; we have many shared interests there. But also just our people are so similar in temperament I think; Czech pragmatism is very like British pragmatism, and also I am really struck by the sense of humour. The sense of humour is very, very similar.
That is true, that is my experience as well. (laughs)
Oh yeah. So there are many, many ties which bind us, and I find the relationship to be really strong now. And for example, we have a really strong defence relationship between our two countries, we are both members of NATO, and we have just agreed 70 bilateral projects between the UK and the Czech Republic in the area of defence. So what I find when I go around the country is a lot of sadness that the UK is leaving the European Union because the Czech Republic has been such a close partner within the European Union and thinks so similarly. A lot of sadness, so I would say the relationship is in a good place, but I am going around saying: ‘Look, one thing will come out of UK’s departure from the European Union is that we can forge stronger bilateral relationships with the partners we are closest to and the Czech Republic would certainly be one of those.’
That partly relates to my next question which is: what impact do you expect that Brexit will have on the bilateral relationship between our two countries? Do you expect the relationship to change significantly, namely in connection to Article 50 that was triggered at the end of March?
Well, of course it will change a little bit because the UK will no longer be a member of the European Union. So until now the UK and the Czech Republic sat alongside one another in the European Council and in all the institutions and brainworks of the European Union and we worked closely together. Thus that will come to an end in that form, so of course it will change, but in so many areas we think the relationship will continue strongly. For example, the trading relationship. For the Czech Republic, the UK is your fourth largest trading partner and you have a large trade surplus with the UK. So we think that even after the UK leaves the European Union, Czech businesses will still want that export market and they will still want that trade surplus. And of course the same applies for British businesses who export to the Czech Republic or invest here. There are over 700 British companies who are based here in the Czech Republic, employing Czech staff, transferring skills to Czech employees and so on. All of that trading relationship, we hope, will continue because it will be in the national interest of both our countries and in the interest of businesses in both our countries for that relationship to continue.
So we are sure that will happen and then in other areas as well the relationship will continue. I spoke a little bit earlier about the defence relationship; of course we will both remain members of NATO and we will continue to operate collectively in that framework. And also, in the area of research, for example, there’s a huge tradition of cooperation between British and Czech researches and scientists. In the last 5 years there were over 5,000 co-authored publications between British and Czech scientists and researchers. That is a really strong partnership and that is not dependant only on our membership in the European Union. So when you ask how will the relationship change, of course it will change in some structures and frameworks, but a lot of the substance of the relationship, I think, will continue and we also see some potential to strengthen it. Until now much of my interaction with the Czech government has been discussing issues that come up in the context of the European Union, but when we leave the European Union, we will want to develop a stronger bilateral relationship with the Czech Republic, strengthen cultural links, educational links, scientific links, a lot of links that we can actually operate on one-to-one basis, rather than only operating through the prism of the European Union. So I do see some potential for it to strengthen.
It is quite customary that individual ambassadors have a topic on their agenda they think more strongly about, they want to prioritize. Is there any topic or area you personally feel strongly about and you wish to pursue more in depth?
There has been so many issues I am trying to deal with and I am trying, but it has not really been possible to prioritise one. And of course, after the UK’s decision to leave the European Union a lot of the focus of my effort and my Embassy’s effort is on making sure that we arrange our departure in such a way that it works for the Czech Republic as well as for the UK, thus a lot of focus’s been on that.
One of the things I spend a lot of time outside my day job has been in theatre and trying to spread the beauty of Shakespeare’s language around the Czech people.
One of the things I do in my spare time – which is a passion of mine – is that I act, so I act in a theatre in Prague. I am a member of an English-language theatre company called “The Prague Shakespeare Company” and I perform Shakespeare in theatres like Stavovské divadlo, or the open-air Shakespeare at Prague Castle. And that does relate to what you are saying because it is a passion of mine to try and spread the British culture. I am a particular fan of William Shakespeare, I think he is a wonderful ambassador for the UK and a great advocate for the the English language. One of the things I spend a lot of time outside my day job has been in theatre and trying to spread the beauty of Shakespeare’s language around the Czech people. But it is actually quite an easy task because I find there is a huge amount of interest in Shakespeare in the Czech Republic. Of course, in the Czech language and Shakespeare is performed a huge amount in Czech, but when I perform it in English a huge number of the audience is predominantly Czechs who have come to see it and actually want to see it performed in the English language. That is incredibly gratifying and nice, so it is quite an easy task that I am doing there.
You also have vast diplomatic experience with working in danger zones and in areas that are usually regarded as male. Do you feel that you are perceived differently within your line of work than men in the same position? Is it still more difficult for a woman to get heard in the diplomatic circles?
Well, you are right, I’ve spent time in some difficult places. I have spent time in Afghanistan, trying to work on issues there, and I spent a lot of my career working on conflicts and in difficult areas, war zones, and that sort of things, so my posting to Prague is definitely the nicest place I have ever been posted to; the most beautiful and the most pleasant and I love it, I don’t ever want to leave. But in terms of what it is like as woman in some of these areas, it is true that there are some challenges in certain countries. For example, when I was operating in Afghanistan I would sometimes come across people who did not want to interact with me because they felt it was not appropriate to deal with a woman because it was against some of their religious or cultural norms. And I would have to insist: ‘Well if you want to deal with the British government, I am the person you are going to deal with.’ Sometimes there are local challenges relating to particular cultures, that sort of thing, which you just have to try to overcome. And of course the British government and the Czech government have done a lot of work together in Afghanistan, British and Czech troops served alongside one another in Afghanistan for some years, and we have done joint work to also try and promote women’s rights and gender equality, and progress has been made there slowly.
But also in some other areas, where you wouldn’t expect to find differences, so for example I have spent quite a lot of time also doing multilateral negotiation. I was posted to the United Nations Security Council in New York, but I’ve also spent a lot of time doing climate negotiations to try and reach an international agreement on climate change and sometimes I have found that, when negotiating, some of my male colleagues or opposite numbers tended to underestimate – I think sometimes women can be underestimated when they are in tough jobs and people can think they are probably not as tough or as robust or likely to be as difficult in some situations as their male colleagues might be. But I sometimes find that an advantage because if you are underestimated then you can somehow prevail and you can surprise people a little bit at what you are able to do or to achieve. So mostly I would say I don’t feel particularly disadvantaged I think, also the world is changing very fast and diplomacy is changing very fast, but certainly, occasionally, the differences do throw up some challenges, and certainly in some cultures that can be a problem.
My last question is a bit more personal. You actively challenge the stereotypes of formality expected of diplomats in general, and the proverbial “stiff upper lip” of a British diplomat in particular. You drive a 1968 “embéčko”, your two adopted “diplocats”, as you call them, even participate in most official meetings you host at the Embassy. You are also an avid theater goer, as well as an actor, as you mentioned earlier. Are you simply being yourself or are you rather trying to tear down some barriers between diplomacy and regular citizens? And how is this approachability perceived by people who meet you and work with you?
I think the answer is I am doing both. I am really keen to change perceptions of the UK and to show that we are not only about the tradition, although we are about tradition too. But we are also very innovative, creative country that is looking for a different approach to some issues. So I am keen to do that, I am keen to show that an ambassador need not be someone who is very stuffy and formal at all times.
There is a part of me that is keen to have that effect, but the areas you mentioned are all genuinely me. I mean when I first – you mentioned my Škoda car – when I first arrived to the Czech Republic, I was opening a magazine and I saw a picture of a Škoda “embéčko” and I just fell in love with it. I said: ‘I want this car.’ And so I asked my staff at my embassy to try to help me find one and they found a fantastic Škoda “embéčko” from 1968, which has been in one family for forty years, and then I bought it, so I am the second owner; I put diplomatic licence plates on it and I drive it around Prague. But that is just a purely personal thing, I love it.
I am keen to show that an ambassador need not be someone who is very stuffy and formal at all times.
I have my two cats that are also purely personally me and I adore them. I got them from the shelter when I first arrived in the Czech Republic. And they do take part in every event and sometimes they embarrass me, it is true. For example, when I was first here I was giving a very large lunch party, about 25 to 30 people, a formal lunch seated at a table. And one of my cats jumped onto the table and stole all of the meat that was on the plate of the main guest, and everybody froze in horror and it was horribly embarrassing, but ultimately, everybody laughed and so it sort of broke the ice. And the same with my acting, it is a huge passion. So I am not doing these things for effect, they are genuinely me, but I am also keen that we can change perceptions, break down some barriers. And mostly I find the reaction is quite good. I am sure there are some people who think maybe I should be more traditional and proper, but it can only really be me because otherwise, it is really difficult to keep that attitude on because I am at events every day, every day of the week, every week of the year, and if I was not being me I think soon people would find out. So I just try and be myself and hope it all go down okay and I certainly think many people have found it nice to find someone who is quite normal and human doing sort of job I’m doing. Hopefully, it will encourage other people who want to, to take up that kind of job and that kind of career because why shouldn’t they.
Jan Thompson OBE
Jan Thompson has been Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Czech Republic since July 2013. She joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1990 after studying French and German at Durham University, and following two years at the BBC. She has spent most of her career working in the areas of international negotiation, crisis management, and conflict, security and defence policy.
Her previous postings include Germany (1992-1994) and the UN Security Council in New York (1997-2000). She also led work on the Balkan wars (1994-1997) and headed the UK department on Afghanistan (2002-2005). After the Asian tsunami she flew to Thailand to establish a temporary British office to help the victims. Before her current appointment she was the UK’s Lead Climate Change Negotiator, with a short break in 2011 when she headed the UK department in the Libyan conflict.
Her Excellency likes mountaineering (she has climbed Kilimanjaro and to Everest Base Camp), theatre (she also acts herself), and is an avid sports fan. She is fluent in French and German, and she is now intensively learning Czech.
The Re:Views Magazine would like to thank the Student Section of the International Institute of Political Science (FSS MU) for their help with arranging the interview.
Don’t forget to check our YouTube channel for video versions of our diplomatic interviews.