by Kristína Šefčíková
This summer, Re:Views had the honour of interviewing a non-resident ambassador for the first time. H.E. Rupert Thomas Holborow, Ambassador of New Zealand to Germany and non-Resident Ambassador to Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein joined us from Berlin to talk about Czech-New Zealand ties, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, sustainability, the European Union and the Free Trade Agreement currently in negotiations, and even the Lord of the Rings.
This year marks the 28th anniversary of diplomatic relations between New Zealand and the Czech Republic, although the ties go back as far as 1924 and the former Czechoslovakia. There are also some interesting projects that have been established between our countries, such as the reciprocal working holiday scheme which provides for a 12-month working holiday visa for both Czechs and New Zealanders. How do you perceive the bond between our two countries, and where do you see the crucial milestones?
First of all, perhaps can I just open up by noting that I have, as Ambassador based here in Berlin in Germany, a number of responsibilities – obviously the Federal Republic of Germany, Switzerland, Lichtenstein, and the Czech Republic. In terms of the Czech Republic, New Zealand has a very warm, very close, and trusted relationship with the Czech Republic which is now well-established and goes back a number of years. We are both countries which are, I believe, deeply committed to an international rules-based system, both deeply committed to multilateralism, and it is often through that sort of prism – of countries trying to do good in the world, working well and closely together, – that we associate and connect to the Czech Republic. We served together, of course, on the United Nations, many years ago now —93-94, I believe—so that was a period of particularly close engagement. More generally, of course, the Czech Republic is an important member of the EU. In fact, it’s going to be chairing the EU Council in the second half of next year. So that would be a particular point of engagement for us. The EU, as an institution of which the Czech Republic is an important member, is something in which we are deeply invested: the health of the EU, and the health of the EU’s relationship with the US, is critical to New Zealand, which looks out to the world—because we are small—always with a view to working with others, with like-minded partners. So a lovely, warm, trusted relationship. Sadly, I don’t get to Prague as often as I would like, and certainly not as often in the last 18 months, as we all had to adjust to this new COVID world.
The Czech Republic and New Zealand are separated by immense physical distance. However, Czechs seem to have managed to leave their mark in New Zealand, especially on its cultural landscape. Tomas Hurnik’s establishment of a baroque music scene on the South Island serves as an example, as well as Fred Turnovsky ONZ, OBE (1916-1994), a Prague-born Wellington businessman, who contributed to the development of music and arts funding in New Zealand. Do you see any common foundations, either cultural, historical, or political, that connect these two countries and could help overcome the distance, perhaps even provide an opportunity to learn from each other?
You are correct that we are far apart. So we’re distant in a geographic sense, but we are not distant in other senses. You’re also correct that there are people-to-people links which go back many decades and the first migrants of Bohemia, as we would call it, go back to 1893. So there has been a small Czech community in New Zealand dating back many, many years, and some of those have been very distinguished and contributed to New Zealand’s cultural scene. I will mention, first of all, Gottfried Lindauer, who was born in Pilsen, and who became a pre-eminent New Zealand artist and made a lot of early paintings of our indigenous people, which are still deeply treasured today. Fred Turnovsky, I’m so pleased that you mentioned Fred, because when I started my career—this was many decades ago now—Fred was a prominent member of the New Zealand and Wellington cultural scenes with his contributions to the arts and to music, so he made a wonderful contribution as well. So there is that dimension of the relationship, but additionally, it’s worth mentioning that there are New Zealand war dead buried in Prague in a cemetery which is looked after by the Czech government. Most New Zealand soldiers who died during the Second World War were buried in Commonwealth war graves, but we do have some soldiers buried in a public cemetery in Prague, which is very generously looked after by the Czech authorities. And coming to the present, just to give an example of current links, there is a Czech, Australian, New Zealand association which is active and it promotes community and business linkages and activities. So you’re correct: geographically distant, but there are some lovely connecting points—some cultural ones, both historic and contemporary.
Recently, New Zealand’s politics have drawn global attention due to the praised leadership of the young prime minister Jacinda Ardern, whose government’s successful “go hard and go early” approach to the COVID-19 pandemic made New Zealand a role model in coping with the worldwide medical crisis. Where do you see New Zealand’s role in today’s world, how much do you think it has changed, and how do you think it may continue to change?
There is a lot in that question and I could probably spend many hours talking to it, but let me make just a few observations. You will already know that New Zealand is very much a liberal democracy and sometimes the impact is not just by how you engage offshore diplomatically and the initiatives you take to the world, but it also can be by the example you set within your own country. We were the first country in the world to give women the right to vote. It’s not that we had the first election that took place where women voted, because that was South Australia at that time, but we were the first country to give women the right to vote. We were one of the countries which were very early in establishing a welfare system to support those more in need in society and in more recent years, in fact just the last couple of years, we would be one of the first countries in the world that, when we issue our annual budget, we do so through a ‘well-being lens’. So that just talks to a country which has, I think, strong, liberal, democratic DNA. In terms of our role in the world, we’re very proud of the fact that we pursue, and have, an independent foreign policy. The decisions we make often align with a group of countries of similar nature and instincts—liberal democracies. But we always look at our decision-making process through the lens of what is appropriate for New Zealand and for our citizens. So I think that is a role we bring to the world—an independent foreign policy. I think we also bring to the world a very open, adaptive, competitive, resilient economy. Particularly in these challenging times of globalisation, there’s a lot of debate about how do countries remain competitive, how do they engage internationally. That’s certainly particularly acute for small countries, and New Zealand is a small country, but I think there’s a lot which we bring to the world through the trade and economic lens as well. But we are small and small countries can do very little on their own—and that brings me back to that initial point about support for multilateralism and support for working with other countries, working with the EU as a collective, and working with countries bilaterally as well. But any good we do in the world, and we like to think occasionally we do good, we would be doing typically in partnership with friends.
Sometimes the impact is not just by how you engage offshore diplomatically and the initiatives you take to the world, but it also can be by the example you set within your own country.
Speaking of the Prime Minister, pictures of her attending the UN general assembly with her baby in her arms went around the world, and as mentioned earlier, she is admired for her leadership, and her outspokenness on women in politics. She is actually just the second world leader to give birth while still in office. Ardern has also received a great deal of media attention, an example being her meeting with Stephen Colbert on two occasions, one in the US and one in New Zealand. How much do you think her personal style of leadership has contributed to the current perception of New Zealand?
I think it is very correct that Prime Minister Ardern does have an enhanced international profile. She’s a younger leader, she’s a female leader who’s had a baby in office, as you have noted, but she’s also had some very significant challenges to confront and has managed those with great distinction. There’s no doubt that we like to think that the New Zealand brand internationally is a good brand, one which is seen in a positive light. But there’s no doubt that the Prime Minister, during her time as Prime Minister, has been a force multiplier for that brand. I was very fortunate to receive her here in Germany soon after I arrived in 2018. At that time, she was, I think, about six and a half months pregnant, and I had that privilege of spending a number of days with her then. The fact is she has characteristics which are very important to her. One is the dimension of kindness and another is a dimension of authenticity – just showing the world your real personality. I think that is very much her—she’s very kind, very authentic, a person who is admired, as you note, for a good reason. But she’s also a very astute politician, she has a sense of what’s right and follows those instincts and they’ve served her well both through that terrible tragedy of the Christchurch terrorist attack and through today, when we’re continuing to manage this global pandemic, which is very challenging for all countries.
This actually brings me to my next question: Ardern’s compassionate and empathetic leadership style was also immediately felt and seen after the terrorist attack in Christchurch. In May 2019, two months after the horrific events, New Zealand together with France launched the Christchurch Call to Action initiative that brings together close to 60 governments, international and non-governmental organisations, as well as numerous representatives of the tech sector. The Czech Republic joined the Call this year, after its application was slightly delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. With this initiative, New Zealand quickly became one of the outspoken leaders in the field of the fight against terrorism and violent extremism online, as well as in supporting transparent tech policies. Where do you see the future of the initiative and what do you think should be its ultimate goal?
I’d maybe make a couple of observations. The first one is that the Prime Minister, following the Christchurch attack, was very conscious that you have a moment in history in which you can affect change, and if you wait too long, other issues arise, and the media spotlight, the public discourse, shifts. So she was very determined to try and move early and through that early movement, hopefully be able to take some good out of the horrific terrorist attack in New Zealand. So that was point one, moving early. Point two was finding a partner who was also able to act as a force multiplier, and President Macron, very generously, offered to play that role, and that was helpful. The third thing about that initiative is that it was simple, it was focused, it was clear. The government wanted to counter violent extremist and terrorist content online. The key underlying thing which the Prime Minister wanted was to seek measures which helped counter violent extremism online, that is the key focus. And for that we needed the help of various social media platforms. The approach was to work with them collegially and collaboratively and call on their humanity to seek to work with governments collectively in that regard. And I think that goes back to this personal dimension of the Prime Minister being kind, being understanding, seeking to be empathetic. I think that collectively, that work between governments, various non-state actors, and the social platforms did achieve something important. There have been initiatives taken in this Christchurch Call frame – early response mechanisms for example, which are making the difference. And of course, what is also making the difference is more and more governments are joining this initiative. You mentioned the Czech Republic this year, which was very welcome, and the United States came onboard this year as well. So another very welcome initiative.
You have a moment in history in which you can affect change, and if you wait too long, other issues arise, and the media spotlight, the public discourse, shifts.
The EU is New Zealand’s biggest partner in developing renewable energies in the Pacific. The Czech Republic has contributed to this endeavour, for example when the environmentally friendly ŠKODA Superb became the new frontline car of the New Zealand Police last year, helping to reduce its carbon footprint. Is sustainability a field where you see more potential for cooperation and mutual benefiting?
Yes, I think undoubtedly, we are looking to work with many partners on the sustainability agenda, of which one is the Czech Republic. It’s nice that you mentioned the ŠKODA motor vehicle fleet, which the New Zealand Police have adopted. That was a point which was raised and mentioned when my trade minister recently spoke to your trade minister. Sustainability, the environment, is deeply imbued in New Zealand’s DNA. We have a Maori phrase “kaitiakitanga” which means guardianship: guardianship of our mountains, of our rivers, of our treasures, of our lakes. We don’t own the land, we simply manage the land for future generations, that’s part of our DNA. It talks to the sustainability agenda and I think we’re very active in that domestically. Like many countries, we’re going carbon neutral by 2050, we’re going 100% renewable by 2030, all rivers have to be swimmable by 2025. One third of our country’s landmass is already a conservation estate, so it’s protected landmass. We’re planting one billion trees… So we can do some things ourselves, but in some other areas, we are not able to make a big difference. Close to 50% of our emissions are from the transport sector and we don’t manufacture cars ourselves, we import them. So we’re looking to those countries which are active in the motor vehicle space, the transportation space, to hopefully deliver those technology breakthroughs which will bring benefit to the world but also bring benefit to New Zealand. So yes, we do look to work closely with many partners on this sustainability agenda, including the Czech Republic.
Sustainability, the environment, is deeply imbued in New Zealand’s DNA. We have a Maori phrase “kaitiakitanga” which means guardianship: guardianship of our mountains, of our rivers, of our treasures, of our lakes.
The Free Trade Agreement is currently being negotiated between New Zealand and the EU. So far, our trading relationship has been governed by commitments going back to the WTO Uruguay Round, almost 30 years ago. Do you think the Agreement will bring a significant change to our trade relations?
The Free Trade Agreement is New Zealand’s number one strategic objective for our engagement with the European Union. There is both a strategic and a commercial dimension to the Free Trade Agreement. In a strategic sense, New Zealand wants to be a resilient economy. We want to have choice and options—if part of the globe suffers economic stress, there are other markets with which you can trade. So the FTA is all about this strategic objective of economic resilience. Having the choice of trading into the EU on better terms than we currently do is really important to us. In this regard, it’s worth observing that the EU has free trade agreements with many, many countries. There are only about six or seven with whom it does not have agreements now, in a regional or bilateral sense. And some of those countries with which it doesn’t have FTAs are its closest diplomatic, political, global partners – including New Zealand and Australia. So for us, as a country which has a strong values fit with Europe that looks to work collaboratively with Europe on a common cause, we want to knit our part of the world more closely to your part of the world and free trade agreements architecture can partially do that. Obviously, commercially, there would be some advantages to us. The EU is a big, wealthy, developed market and we would like to be able to trade into the EU on the same terms as a number of our competitors and currently that is not the case. The Czech Republic has been a wonderful friend to New Zealand on the FTA. It’s been consistently supportive and we don’t take that friendship and support for granted. It’s well-known, it’s well-respected, and deeply acknowledged back in Wellington.
The Czech Republic has been a wonderful friend to New Zealand on the FTA. It’s been consistently supportive and we don’t take that friendship and support for granted.
It is quite customary that each ambassador has a topic on their agenda that they might feel strongly about, or that they want to prioritise. Has there been any such topic that you wanted to pursue in depth? And does your position equip you with tools to pursue it?
Again, one could spend a long time reflecting on that. Very interesting question and one could no doubt say a lot about. I think the thing which I would like to emphasise is that, coming back to this issue of distance. New Zealand is geographically distant from the Czech Republic and from the EU, but in all the other respects we’re very close. There are strong people-to-people links, there are strong cultural links, there are historic links. But most importantly, in a contemporary sense, we’re two parts of the world, which essentially promote support of liberal democracy, multilateralism, and an international rules-based system. So the thing we want to, I want to see, is that improved connectivity, just brought a bit closer together, for there to be a bit more of an automatic reflex of reaching out to one another. And the FTA can actually help do that. The thing which is important to New Zealand is the FTA, but it’s also the health of the EU, the Czech Republic working with other partners in the EU to support the European project, it’s important. Without a healthy EU, without an EU which has a healthy relationship with the United Kingdom, and without an EU which has a very strong relationship with the US, the transatlantic relationship – namely those countries which want to do good in the world, and I put New Zealand in that camp, and I put Europe in that camp – without those strong bonds it makes the task just that much harder to do. So I just want to see more cohesiveness between those various relationships. We’re witnessing some of that and it’s good and we’re trying to contribute to it.
As you mentioned, you are the Ambassador to Germany, as well as a non-Resident Ambassador to Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Liechtenstein. Do you find this multiple role difficult or, on the contrary, do you see benefits to it, both to yourself and the respective countries?
I do see it as difficult but I also see an enormous benefit. The difficulty, of course, is you tend to be resident in countries which have a big global presence, a major economy, so Germany is the case in point. It takes up a lot of my time and energy. The difficulty is finding the balance between attending to responsibilities here in Germany, but then also giving the correct amount of attention from my perspective to the benefits we can secure from engagement with the Czech Republic or Switzerland or Liechtenstein. So that is the difficulty. The value is enormous in the sense that I spend a lot of time here in Berlin talking to the Foreign Office, talking to the Chancellery, talking to other agencies about third country issues – Iran, China, Russia, the Indo-Pacific, and obviously that’s enormously important and that’s a big country perspective. The value of going and talking to the Czech Republic is it’s a smaller country, it has very much its own independent take and perspective on issues, and because we are a slightly smaller country too, I find those perspectives on those other relationships also very informative.
Did you have any previous ties to Europe or the Czech Republic prior to your coming here as an ambassador and have you ever taken any Czech classes?
I did not have any former engagement really with the Czech Republic, no. I had had former exposure to Europe—my father was also a diplomat. He was posted in Paris when I was a teenager. So I spent from about age eleven to age eighteen in Europe. I went to a boarding school in the United Kingdom. Europe is a second home to me, so it’s nice to be back. But I did not have deep links to the Czech Republic. And I wish I could say I had taken Czech language lessons, but I haven’t. I find it hard enough here (both chuckle) doing justice to a German dimension to my responsibilities, and I’m unfailingly impressed when I go to Prague and meet some of my resident colleagues, like my British ambassador and friend Nick Archer, who does speak Czech. So no, I don’t bring that skill, sadly, to this relationship.
The value of going and talking to the Czech Republic is it’s a smaller country, it has very much its own independent take and perspective on issues, and because we are a slightly smaller country too, I find those perspectives on those other relationships also very informative.
I mean, it is understandable, Czech is not the easiest language in the world.
It is not (both laugh).
To end on a lighter note – have you ever visited Hobbiton, the pop-culture icon of New Zealand?
I have not visited Hobbiton, I have driven past it at one point and nearly did. But you’re right—Lord of the Rings, Peter Jackson, the producer, is a wonderful force multiplier for New Zealand’s brand. In many ways, my response to this question is I have not visited Hobbiton per se, but since all of New Zealand is representative of elements of Lord of the Rings, the majesty of the country, some of the open spaces, some of the mountain terrain which appeared in the films, places which I’ve known and love dearly, every New Zealander carries a little bit of Peter Jackson, little bit of Lord of the Rings, little bit of Hobbiton in their heart.
Ambassador Rupert Thomas Holborow
H.E. Rupert Thomas Holborow was appointed as the Ambassador to Germany, Switzerland, the Czech Republic and Liechtenstein in 2018. He entered office with experience from various posts overseas, such as from Indonesia and from India (2008-2010) as High Commissioner, with responsibility for Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Nepal. Ambassador Holborow also has a background in economic and trade policy and speaks basic French, Bahasa, modest Hindi and a little German. You can check out his professional CV here or follow his Twitter account.
Last but not least, we would like to sincerely thank Ambassador Holborow for finding the time in his busy schedule to talk to us. Big thank you also belongs to Ms Natalie Ryan, Deputy Head of Mission at the New Zealand Embassy Berlin, for her kind help with arranging the interview.