By Markéta Šonková, Kristína Šefčíková, and Anna Formánková
Talking to an ambassador is always fascinating, as one can find out so much about the different cultures and many intersections between cultures. Talking to a British ambassador, whose professional CV runs across several countries and high offices, during a turbulent time in UK politics and a worldwide pandemic, makes the debate even more captivating. However, the discussion with Her Majesty’s Ambassador Nick Archer, who has resided in Prague since January 2018, examined not only Brexit or the past of the Czech-British ties, and the stepping stones the two countries can use to build their future ties, but also the many things we share in our everyday lives, the importance of nurturing these common values, seeing and working with the bigger picture, and inevitably also the Queen.
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 initially hesitant approach towards further and long-term engagement in the continental politics, relations have been rather lukewarm at times in the past. How do you perceive the bond between our two countries, and where do you see the crucial milestones?
I think the first thing to say, and it sounds perhaps rather ungenerous, but it happens to be true, is that relationships between countries are driven by interests. Relationships between countries are not exactly the same as relationships between people. So, where two countries have clearly identifiable strong mutual interests, there will be the strongest bond. And I think that if you look back over the history of Czechoslovakia, and then the Czech Republic, from 1918, what you see is that the perception of aligned interests has varied over time. There have been obvious high spots, like the arrival of the government in exile in London. And I would also single out, in the early 90s, the “Know How Fund.” Do you know what I mean by that?
No, I don’t think I do.
This is incredibly important, because when you restored democracy in 1989, the Western nations asked themselves how they could best help build up and strengthen democracy and the market economy in countries like then Czechoslovakia. And we decided that the best thing we could do was to share expertise. And so, for a period of two or three years, beginning in the 90s, we gathered lots of good practitioners, lawyers, accountants, people from the City of London, financiers, businesspeople. And we brought them over to sit alongside the new leadership of this country and share their knowledge and their expertise. In retrospect, I think, even if it is not very well-known now, it was critical in enabling the new leaders of democratic Czechoslovakia to internalise huge amounts about how market economies and political democracies think and work. And so, for a lot of people who remember that time before you were born, there was a real high point in 1991-1992, because of this so-called Know How Fund. Obviously, it was all paid for by the British government, but it was not like the kind of development aid you would give to a developing country. It was as between equals; it was about knowledge. So, if we took the Beneš government in exile in 1940 as a high point, I would take the Know How Fund in 1991-1992 as another high point. What we are trying to do now is create another bilateral high point to manage the fact that we are no longer European Union partners.
There was a real high point in 1991-1992, because of this so-called Know How Fund. Obviously, it was all paid for by the British government, but it was not like the kind of development aid you would give to a developing country. It was as between equals; it was about knowledge.
Last year, the UK commemorated several important anniversaries and events in its history which also bore great international significance. At the same time, the country has left the EU and is to open a new chapter in January as the transition period will be brought to an end on December 31. Where do you see Britain’s role in today’s world, how much do you think it has changed, and how do you think it may continue to change?
Well, our role is to be, as our ministers would say, a force for good. Now, as I said at the beginning, every country is driven by its perception of its interests. But we perceive our principal interest as being to live in a freer, more peaceful, more democratic, more prosperous world. So, you can say credibly that our national interest aligns with being a force for good in the wider world. And the second point I would make is, you can exaggerate the change that Britain leaving the European Union will make. Because we are not giving up our position as a permanent member of the Security Council (of the UN). Neither are we giving up our membership of NATO or our position as a nuclear weapons power or our position as a G7 economy. So, there are two points here. One is that Britain always did a lot outside the European Union. And the second is that we are not setting ourselves up in any kind of adversarial relationship with the European Union. I think we would see it as being about Britain joining, as an independent nation, that community of Western powers of which the European Union is one.
In relation to Brexit, the Czech Republic introduced the so-called “Lex Brexit” last year and other contingency measures. Yet, the general level of uncertainty is still high, despite the end of the transition period uncompromisingly approaching. What impact do you expect that Brexit will have on the bilateral relationship between our two countries, and how much is it consuming and influencing your agenda compared to other issues?
I wonder about the level of uncertainty. It is terribly important to understand that the so-called Withdrawal Agreement, which we agreed last year and which is now in force, has removed almost all the uncertainty from the people-to-people relationship. So, Czechs in Britain have certainty, Brits in the Czech Republic have certainty – and that is incredibly important. I would not want to imagine a situation in which our citizens were still uncertain. The big uncertainty, obviously, is about the details of the trading relationship. And that is inevitably uncertain because it is still being negotiated. So yes, the negotiation is going on, and we are all desperately keen to see the deal emerging from that on both sides. I think there is will on both sides to make a deal. The question is whether we can find the basis for that.
How much of my time does it consume? I would say less now that we are negotiating the future relationship, as compared with last year when we were negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement. That is because the future relationship negotiation is happening between two parties, even more so than last year. So, both sides have now agreed. This is really about the (European) Commission with a mandate and the British government team with the mandate, and it feels to me as if that the negotiation is perhaps more clearly defined and set aside than last year, and the years before. Not least because now I represent the government, which is very clear – perhaps clearer than its predecessor – about exactly what deal it is looking for. So, I am free to get on with the very important business also of reinforcing and building the bilateral relationship.
My big theme is that there is far more going on between Britain and the Czech Republic than many people realize.
Moving even more towards your agenda: Around the time when you started your posting in Prague, the Embassy introduced “British Ambassador Awards” which recognises significant Czech personalities who contributed to common Czech-British values. What prompted you to launch such an initiative?
Well my big theme – and we may want to come back to this in other ways later in this discussion – is that there is far more going on between Britain and the Czech Republic than many people realize. And also that when we talk in a rather abstract way, as we are inclined to, about the so-called shared values, that is not just rhetoric; it is real. The Ambassador Awards are about the tradition of volunteering and clubs and voluntary activities that exist in both countries. And they are about us meeting people in Czech society who we might not otherwise meet, some of the charities in particular, and us drawing attention to the fact that this tradition of volunteering is something that we have in common.
And are there any other instruments at your disposal that can further support the Czech-British ties?
I have spent my life highlighting things that already exist. I do not know what it is, but if you talk to people in any particular area of life in our countries, they will be aware of what they do with Czech counterparts, whether they are scientists, or exporters, or students, or experts in policy towards Russia, etc. But because we all work in these professional silos, I think more today than we did a generation or two ago, we are very often not aware of what is happening in a parallel, but unknown silo, this sort of separate stream, if you like. So, a lot of what we do is drawing the attention of people who are specialists in one thing to all commonalities that exist in other areas – I will give you an example, that sounds very abstract. When we celebrated the end of our centenary programme last year, which covered a whole range of areas, we had a party and very often people said to me at that party “Gosh, I knew what we were doing, but I had no idea that all the other things were happening.” So that is very important.
It’s true when I studied and also briefly worked in the UK, I had the very same experience with a lot of the British people I met. That they actually always managed to mention some commonalities with the Czech Republic, or that they always remembered somebody, either from the past or from now, whom they knew or knew of, who had Czech or Czechoslovak ties. That’s always very nice.
You have actually already hinted towards my next question as I wanted to ask – as you already mentioned – last year, the embassy in Prague celebrated 100 years since its opening in the Thune Palace, and there was a wide range of events all-year-round which were part of the #STOLET¹ campaign. What were the goals you started the campaign with, and have they materialised?
The goal was to highlight what a diverse range of engagements there are between the two countries and at the same time to advance a part of what we call our “values agenda” – and we talked earlier about the value of volunteering. We do a lot of science and technology cooperation for example, but we decided to celebrate that in an event which was specifically about women in science. We brought together three incredibly eminent women scientists for a day with largely female participants – not exclusively, we are not in a ghetto, but we issued an open invitation and a very large number of younger Czech women scientists turned up. And I think to some degree, varying degrees, they were inspired by these women who had not only done great things but also achieved recognition and are being treated with respect. So that was one example. But you don’t obviously demonstrate the diversity of the relationship fixing on one thing so we did about 16 or 17 events in the end, and they were all in different areas – something to do with classical music, something to do with pop music, something to do with science, something to do with business, something to do with town and city planning. And the idea was to achieve a cumulative impact.
Now did we succeed? I know from experience that it is very difficult to measure impact, but my belief is that not only was it clearly very motivating for the embassy, which I could mention, but particularly at the time when the Brexit story was not very popular amongst the Czech public, so this was a sort of counter-narrative, if you like, a second story, but to the extent that I can judge, for example through the media impact, it was quite clear that we showed very large numbers of people at least some of that spectrum of activity.
We have a phrase in English when you are a “Jack of all trades” – when you are a “Jack of all trades and a master of none,” and I am quite proud of that. That’s what an ambassador should be. To me it’s all about not concentrating on one thing, but being open across a whole range of areas, and in particular getting away from that official world the whole time.
It is quite customary that individual ambassadors have a topic on their agenda they feel strongly about or that they want to prioritize. Of course I know that you have to cover a whole spectrum of issues and areas that come with the ambassador’s job. But is there maybe a topic or area you personally wish to pursue more in depth?
Well you know that project, the #STOLET project that we were just discussing, was in a way my personal crusade (both laugh). Because when I arrived here, no particular plans had been made for the centenary. And of course with any anniversary, you have to decide whether it is important or not. So it was a very personal decision to take that opportunity and make the most of it, and then, as I say, to work across this diversity of sectors. And that reflects what I think is important about diplomacy – which is that we don’t get stuck in our own narrow channel, just talking about, I don’t know, foreign policy. So we have a phrase in English when you are a “Jack of all trades” – when you are a “Jack of all trades and a master of none,” and I am quite proud of that. That’s what an ambassador should be. To me it’s all about not concentrating on one thing, but being open across a whole range of areas, and in particular getting away from that official world the whole time. So you know I think the first person I went to see when I came here in this country more or less was the Moravian manager of the Czech philharmonic orchestra. I didn’t know when I first met David (Mareček) what we would do together but I was very sure that we should do something. And so it turned out that another of our events was Magdaléna Kožená, another great Moravian woman, and her British husband doing a concert with the Czech Philharmonic and being a partner in that enterprise.
Although you have spent most of your professional life in the services of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, you were also the Assistant Private Secretary to HRH The Prince of Wales between 1997-2000. The British Royal family continues to be immensely popular worldwide. Why do you think it is the case that such a historic institution continues to be so popular in the 21st century? To me it seems the popularity is maybe even growing…
I don’t have any particular insight, but I think the conventional explanations are probably accurate. That there is something about continuity and about stability. But I do also think that it’s about the person of the Queen. Both in a very crude sense – she has lived, she’s been around forever, I mean my mother is 83 and she can’t really remember a time before the Queen (both laugh). So when we talk about permanence, this is not just about the permanence of the institution, but also about the fact that most of the world cannot remember the world without the Queen. And I think that matters to people, perhaps more than they realize. But if the Queen were a bad person, then it might have the opposite effect. But also people intuit – because as you know, the Queen does not speak very much personally in public – people intuit that she is a very good thing, she is a good person in a moral sense, in terms of her commitment to her job, in terms of her understanding it is for life, and we all want to have good people up there. I am a monarchist, though, I should say – both because of my experience with the British royal family, but also because I see another countries that I value – I spent four years as you know as British ambassador to Copenhagen, and I have no doubt at all that their Queen is also a wonderful person, plays a very similar role for them. So I am kind of a monarchist.
Your predecessor was a very noticeable person, among others, thanks to her theatre activities, her “embéčko”, but also her well-known “diplocats” – you have a dog if I am not mistaken…
You are also the first male UK ambassador in Prague after almost 17 years. What was it like to enter the embassy in such a setting and establish your distinct presence?
I have a huge advantage in that I have done it before (both laugh). A lot of people in this country remember my predecessor Jan (Thompson). People in this country will also now know my predecessor in Copenhagen, who was a man called David Frost.
He is now the principal (Brexit) negotiator for the British government. And my point is, you know, David was a hugely capable man, very talented, intelligent, and energetic man. And I remember arriving there and thinking ‘what do I do?.’ I assumed he would have done everything. But the truth is that the times change and that new challenges are always coming up, and that – it would be wrong to say that memories are short, but even if people have fond memories of your predecessor, they do understand very well that even if they preferred your predecessor, you are the person they have got to deal with. So I learned that in my two previous jobs running a mission. So I can’t say it worried me.
As for coming here, when I first stayed at the Thune Palace, when I was a young “tajemník”² back in 1992, I kind of already knew. And the house, I looked at it at the time and I thought ‘That would be a nice house to live in one day!’ (both laugh). So it’s very good to be living in it.
Did you have any other previous ties to the Czech Republic prior to your coming here as an ambassador?
As I said, I visited in 1992 because the British government was concerned about whether the splitting up of Czechoslovakia would be peaceful or not. Sounds very silly now, but of course it was at the time when Yugoslavia was splitting up very violently. So we came and we met Mr. Mečiar and then we met Mr. Klaus here in Prague. As I reminded him when I met him that second time (both laugh). And we went home reassured. So I didn’t really know the Czech Republic, but they do try to teach us the language. And of course knowing the language before you come, you obviously soak up lots about the country and the culture.
That was actually going to be my very last question, to finish on a lighter note. How do you enjoy learning Czech? It’s not an easy task to do…
It’s not a lighter note, I find it incredibly difficult! (laughs) I would say a rather darker note for me. I’ve learned a lot of languages over the years, and I think it becomes more difficult as your brain gets older, because things happen to the memory. But let’s just say I am still working on it.
So fingers crossed it gets easier and thank you so much for your time and the lovely interview, it’s been an honour, Sir!
Thank you, it’s been good for me as well.
Nick Archer MVO
His Excellency Nick Archer MVO was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Czech Republic in January 2018. He joined the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1983 and has spent most of his professional life in varying roles and on varying positions within the FCO, including postings in Amman, Norway, Malta, and Denmark. You can find his professional CV on the Embassy’s website and you can also follow his Twitter account.
We would like to thank the members of the staff of the British Embassy in Prague who helped with arranging this interview. Thanks also belong to Bridget Laughlin Geraghty for her kind help with proofreading and editing the interview. Last, but surely not least, we would like to thank His Excellency Nick Archer for making the time in his busy schedule to talk to us.
1 Meaning “Hundred years”.
2 A secretary in the diplomatic sense of the word.