Interview: Andrew Page, British Ambassador to Slovenia
Just after celebrations for the Queen´s Diamond Jubilee have ended, Great Britain is preparing for the global highlight of the year, the Olympic and ParaOlympic Games in London. We talked about this exciting year for Britain with Andrew Page, British Ambassador to Slovenia. We also touched on a few tricky questions about the role of Britain in the EU and the correct measures to deal with the current economic crisis.
How are you feeling after all the activities for the Queen´s Jubilee and numerous celebrations? Are you satisfied with the response in Slovenia?
I´m feeling excited and enthusiastic. I’m trying to make sure that we keep up the momentum until the end of this busy summer. It´s a period when we have a lot of activities, some of them behind us now, some still ahead. A huge number of people watched HM The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, which was a magnificent event, wonderfully British and patriotic.I think that a lot of people in Slovenia enjoyed it too, judging by the remarks that came my way. It has done even more to entrench the popularity of Her Majesty in particular, but also the Royal Family in general, in Britain and all around the world. William and Kate had already done a lot to boost this last year when they got married – I was touched by the way many Slovenian guests watched the ceremony in awed silence in my sitting room, before we held a party in my garden at the Residence.Again this year we held a big garden party, the Queen’s Birthday Party, to coincide with the Diamond Jubilee, on the evening of the concert at Buckingham Palace. It poured with rain, but that didn’t dampen British spirits in the least – we soldiered on, taking our inspiration from HM The Queen and HRH Prince Philip, who had stood stoically for four hours in the rain the previous day at the pageant on the Thames. So the Royal Family is riding high. Altogether it has been a great start to the summer for us this year – what I have been labelling “British Summer Time”. Not only have we had the Diamond Jubilee; we were also host country for the Midsummer Gala at Vila Podroznik, organised in tandem with the Lions Club Ljubljana Iliria – the biggest charity fund-raising event of the year, raising over Euros 50,000 for children from troubled family backgrounds; and now, of course, we are gearing up for the Summer Olympics and Paraolympics in London.
The Olympics are probably already well prepared. Is everything in place, just waiting for people, athletes and tourists to come to London?
There are always last minute things to be done, but what has impressed me about the London 2012 Games is the extent of prior thinking and planning – not only that the Games are coming in on time and on budget, in terms of all the preparations of the venues and events, but the fact that they have done this so far ahead of time that they have held rehearsals and done a lot of contingency planning. Of course they need to think about all the security aspects: they will have an estimated 120 Heads of State and Government coming to London from all over the world, as well as a lot of tourists, sports lovers, business people etc. Overall this is a fantastic opportunity for us, to promote not only London but the whole of the United Kingdom, to give a big boost to Britain’s economy as well as reputation. We will make the most of this opportunity to present the best of the UK as a modern, diverse, innovative and creative society – playing to an expected global audience of 4 billion people.
The location of the Olympics is in fact almost in the centre of London. How will the problems with traffic be solved? A lot of people are afraid of crowded areas or slow traffic connections.
Of course London will be packed: it will be teeming with people, but this has been thought through. The Public Sector Funding Package of £9.3 billion included public transport provision as well as all the additional security for the Games. There has been a significant upgrading of the public transport system, especially the investment in infrastructure in the East End of London. The whole area has become a real transport hub – not just a national but an international one, with the Eurotunnel link going under the Channel to Paris and Brussels. The LOCOG team have thought through carefully how to transport the athletes in particular, as well as the millions of spectators – mindful of the fact that London 2012 is a sporting event first and foremost, and the athletes should come first.
To more serious questions. How do you see the situation in Europe with all the austerity campaigns? The British Prime Minister was quite critical about the lack of a growth concept.
I wouldn´t say that the British PM was critical exactly. At the June European Council he made it very clear in public statements that Britain wants to see a comprehensive growth package in the European Union. He welcomed the fact that the growth programme includes commitments to deal with weak lending, including through an increase in funds for the European Investment Bank. The Summit also made commitments to complete the Single Market in areas such as services, energy and digital, in which Britain will be one of the beneficiaries. The short answer is that Britain wants to see a successful Eurozone because 40% of our trade is with the Eurozone. We have also left our European partners in no doubt about our position on a banking union in the Eurozone. We will not stand in the way of this – on the contrary, we believe that the remorseless logic of a single currency means that the Eurozone will need closer economic and fiscal integration. But the key parts of banking union will be done by the ECB for Eurozone members, not for us. Britain will not be part of any common deposit guarantees or under the jurisdiction of any single European supervisor. Britain will not join the Eurozone – there is no support from the British population for us to do so. So British banks will continue to be supervised by the Bank of England, not by the ECB. In the meantime, we have to ensure that Britain takes responsibility for sorting out its own banking sector, and that is what we are doing – introducing the toughest, most transparent rules on pay and bonuses of any major financial centre in the world, increasing the levies banks must pay, and tightening regulation. And outside the Eurozone, we shall keep reducing our budget deficit and bearing down on debt, with all the advantages that brings for keeping interest rates low and our credit rating high.
How do you see the Slovenian response to the crisis? We were late in our reaction but do you think that the austerity package is the right way? Is there a lack of a credible growth package?
I think that the initial concentration of the Janša-led Coalition Government on the stabilisation of public finances was the right way to go. A lot of outside observers were impressed at how quickly the Government was able to reach agreement with the social partners. Naturally some of the original proposals were watered down – logical concessions were made in the process; but the important thing is that the Government is reducing the budget deficit significantly towards 3% of GDP by the end of 2013. There will be challenges ahead; but the focus can now be on the growth measures being prepared by the Ministry of the Economy, which are definitely going in the right direction. The vital thing is to get more support for small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) – they represent a very large proportion of Slovenia’s economy, so it is important to restore lending to enable those companies to grow. This is a large part of the reason why we arranged a visit to Slovenia last month by the Lord Mayor of London and a delegation from the City. During his visit, we organised a workshop on financial engineering instruments – innovative ways of enabling SMEs to get access to a mixture of private and public sector funds, including European funds. We will follow this up with a visit to the City by SID Bank to meet investment funds, with a view to lending to SMEs.
How well is Slovenia known in Britain? A lot of people come to Slovenia on vacation, and Easyjet flights are always more or less full. But where do you see further business opportunities?
As I mentioned, we had a visit from the Lord Mayor of the City of London in June and our Minister for Europe, David Lidington, visited in July soon after the June European Council. We deliberately made a case for the Lord Mayor to come here, knowing that the Slovenian Government is keen to open up the economy further, with 40% of the economy still being in State hands – a high figure in comparison to other EU countries. We want to do what we can to help the Slovenian economy to attract more foreign investment and private ownership. The Lord Mayor talked to the Economy and Finance Ministers, and they agreed that the City of London has a lot of things to offer in the fields of financial services, privatisation and Public Private Partnerships (PPPs), so there is lots to follow up on with the Slovenian Government in the months ahead. Similarly, our Europe Minister identified a lot of areas of common interest in terms of our two Foreign Ministries’ approaches to economic diplomacy – the very fact that I am spending so much of my time on economic and commercial work, in close liaison with colleagues from UK Trade and Investment and the British Chamber of Commerce in Slovenia (BCCS), demonstrates that. Both the Lord Mayor and our Europe Minister spoke to packed houses of business people, senior officials and diplomats at British Business Breakfasts organised by BCCS. I am glad that you mentioned the tourism sector too. I think that tourism is an area where a lot more could be done in Slovenia: you have huge scope to attract more visitors and earn more income. You have tremendous potential still waiting to be exploited: a lot of natural assets and areas of breath-taking beauty in this country. But this will require more by way of marketing and promotion, in what is a very competitive market-place. The trick will be to market Slovenia’s added value or competitive advantages – and not just on the basis of lower cost. The Brits who come here love this country – and many who come once can’t stop coming back. 15% of the tourists that visit Bled – and a large proportion of those who get married on Bled’s picture-postcard island – come from Britain. That’s why I spent a day in Henley in late June with the Mayor of Bled, to encourage a town twinning of Bled and Henley based on their long traditions as international centres for rowing. But you have not just Bled, but Bohinj, Ljubljana, Maribor (ECC for 2012), the caves, Lipica, Piran, the coast and so on – and Dolenjska for example, where I did my language training, so full of beauty (and cvicek!) and so unspoilt. If you can improve your tourist infrastructure further and step up your marketing, I am sure that you will see more and more visitors coming to Slovenia, from Britain as from elsewhere in Europe and further afield.
Where do you see the main advantages of Slovenia? What is the basis for new growth? Where can we lead in Europe?
This is the vital question, for Slovenia as for the whole of Europe. It is crucial to identify strengths and real competitive edge. For Slovenia that means not feeling constrained by its small size, but turning this to your advantage. A lot of people in this country are quick to say that “we are just a small country”. But there is such a lot that a small country can do, and you have proven that in the last 20 years. Slovenes should hold their heads high with pride for what they have achieved – higher than they have been doing lately, in my view, when the recession has affected national self-confidence. My last three years have coincided with the economy falling 8% in 2009 – more than any other country in the Eurozone – and flat growth since. But it is important not to let this obscure how far Slovenia has come in two decades. Added to this, you have a good geo-strategic location, which will open up big opportunities, if the right steps are taken in terms of infrastructure. I think that people need to keep in mind the big picture, for example develop Ljubljana Airport as a regional transport hub for cargo, develop the Port of Koper with a deeper pier, modernise the railways. This will open up huge vistas in terms of the goods that could enter and transit your country, for the good of the economy. This will mean putting your plans for big infrastructure projects into practice, and of course this will cost money. European structural and cohesion funds will help. So too could more foreign investment, and greater use of PPPs. But all this will require political will and courage.
Will you attend the Olympics in London, or will you prepare something special in Slovenia to promote the Olympics here?
We will organise a big party for the opening night of the Olympics in the garden of my Residence, for the expanding British community in Slovenia and for all our friends from Slovenia’s sporting world. We hope that we will have a big screen so that everybody will enjoy the opening ceremony outside. We have already held a sequence of events leading up to the Games, including an exhibition of 20 large posters which has been opened in a different Slovenian city every month – currently in Maribor for July, which is British month in the European City of Culture. We have also brought in a model of the Olympic Village and Park, on display at the Urbanistični Inštitut, so that everybody can see how things will work when the Olympics kick off in London on 27 July. And we have been actively promoting the ParaOlympic Games too, for example with an event in my Residence in early July involving lots of Slovenian ParaOlympians, like the inspirational Alen Kobilica. We timed this to coincide with the visit of our Europe Minister David Lidington, as he is constituency MP for the town of Stoke Mandeville, where the ParaOlympics began in 1948.
Do you think that that projects like the Olympics, World Championships and also some smaller projects such as the European Capital of Culture that is currently in Maribor are real opportunities for development of a country and the specific region, or just short term costs? In Slovenia we have had quite a number of big events, but although we have organised them well, we haven’t necessarily capitalised on them fully. Can London be a case study for our future projects?
You have highlighted an important point, that of the legacy of the London 2012 Games. What is really at the heart of the reason why London won the bid is not so much the infrastructure that we already have in London – good though that is – but the plans for the future after the Olympics. There has been a lot of talk about the cost of the Games – the Prime Minister said earlier this month that the legacy of Games will bring in £13 billion in contracts for British companies and tourism, exceeding the £9.3 billion cost of the Games. But this is not just about money. The project behind the London Games has been to achieve urban regeneration on a scale never seen before in London, or indeed anywhere in Europe. It is highly impressive when you see the statistics, not just the stadiums – which are great – but the way they have built an entire new 140-acre park from scratch, in an extremely green and environmentally-conscious way, providing new lungs of London in the most run-down part of the city. For example, the average life expectancy in the East End of London, where the Games will take place, was eight years lower than the London average. This will change markedly after the Games. It is difficult to put a price on that.
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