“WE believe in sticking to rules and we are also quite passionate in our defence of our sovereignty,” says Gill Fraser, Chargé d’Affaires of the British Embassy in Bratislava, when explaining some of the roots of EU-scepticism in the United Kingdom. Fraser, who came to Slovakia after serving in Tripoli, also adds that there is something about the British psyche that makes the country “pragmatic about what are the benefits that the EU brings to our citizens”.
“I think what matters are economic growth, increasing competitiveness and jobs: that is what we have taken from the recent European parliamentary elections,” Fraser said, adding that the nations need to be absolutely focused on those key issues as well as “ensuring that there is a proper role for national parliaments and that the EU becomes engaged when it is required”.
The Slovak Spectator spoke to Fraser about the referendum on Scottish independence, immigration as well as the approach of British social authorities to child welfare.
The Slovak Spectator (TSS): A referendum on Scotland’s independence will be held on September 18. Polls suggest that Scotland is unlikely to vote for separation. What were the main factors that led to this referendum?
Gill Fraser (GF): After the labour government came into power in 1997, they started introducing more forms of devolution, while the most obvious form of devolution was the creation of the Scottish parliament in 1999. The Scottish National Party, the largest party in the Scottish parliament, was elected in 2011 with a manifesto pledge that they would hold a referendum on independence. As a result of discussions in 2012, the prime minister announced that there would be a referendum featuring one question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” The referendum takes place on September 18. The UK government has a strong position on this issue. We believe it is better for Scotland to be part of the United Kingdom, as well as it is better for the United Kingdom to have Scotland as part of it. Lots of different papers have been published in the UK setting out the benefits to Scotland in remaining in the UK. For example, it is not automatic for Scotland to be a member of the EU, so there would have to be negotiations in the same way there would have to be an agreement that Scotland could be part of NATO. We also believe that Scottish businesses and Scottish citizens do better for being part of the UK. The UK has got a very extensive diplomatic presence. I help promote Scottish industry; the whiskey industry is always one that we highlight. We are here to support Scottish business as well. So we get the best of both worlds. We are here to provide support for Scottish citizens when they travel overseas on holiday. There are lot of benefits of having the wider UK reach.
TSS: Eurosceptic voices have been traditionally strong in the UK, with a referendum on membership being scheduled for 2017. What is the driving force behind EU-scepticism in the UK?
GF: It is quite hard when you are looking at yourself and think about where these values come from. There is something to be said for being an island nation; that gives one certain values and views. We are very independent people and probably pragmatic. We need to know why we need to do certain things and what are the concrete steps. When we agree on something, we implement it: that is part of our psyche as well. We believe in sticking to rules and we are also quite passionate in our defence of our sovereignty. Our trading routes, being very active throughout our history, make us a very global country. We do not only look to Europe, we look to other historical trading nations as well. We see ourselves as a kind of bridge. This is something about our psyche which makes us believe in a kind of fairness and rules, and being pragmatic about what are the benefits that the EU brings to our citizens.
TSS: Earlier this year, London hosted the Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict, while your embassy has also been involved in events focused on victims of sexual violence. Why should countries such as Slovakia devote attention to these issues?
GF: You rightly highlight the End Sexual Violence in Conflict (ESVC) summit that the former Foreign Secretary William Hague and Angelina Jolie jointly chaired last month. We have also hosted in London on July 22 the Girl Summit which focused on stopping early and forced marriage as well as ending the terrible crime of female genital mutilation. The UK has shown clear leadership on these issues. There needs to be a global response to some of the terrible crimes that take place, particularly when you are talking about rape being used as weapon of war. There needs to be a change of attitudes and the ESVC London summit agreed on some very concrete practical action of what the international community should do and how we can work together to ensure that this kind of impunity is no longer there. All of us have the responsibility to act on these issues, which is why we as an embassy took part in a global relay that went alongside the summit in London. We were able to have a very active and very good discussion with some people from NGOs here who are also experienced and provided support to a number of victims in some terrible situations. It is right for all of us to be engaged, in order to ensure that the actions from the summit are maintained and even accelerated, and we actually finally deal with this absolute scourge of war and stop it from ever happening again.
TSS: The UK has experienced huge waves of immigration over the past 15 years, while it has become a destination country not only to new EU countries, but also for people from established EU countries hit by the economic and financial crisis, for example, Spain, Italy or Portugal. What are the challenges that immigration currently brings to the UK and how is your country addressing these challenges?
GF: The UK has got a long and proud history of different immigrant groups coming to the UK and bringing lots of benefits.
According to one survey, the UK’s number one dish is chicken tikka masala, an Indian dish. We’ve embraced and welcomed immigration throughout our history. But obviously, uncontrolled immigration does bring challenges; it brings pressure on public services. Arguably, it reduces wages for those who are on a low income, and it can make it difficult to maintain social cohesion. Recently, the UK has introduced a new system for access to benefits for British citizens as well as those who came to the UK for work. The system has been tightened up, it’s ensuring that people come to the UK for the right reasons. So it’s about welcoming those who want to work hard, who want to study, who want to contribute to our economy and to our society.
TSS: The local Slovak media extensively covered cases of Slovak children being taken away from their biological parents in the UK, while recently the deputy chairwoman of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), Miroslava Szitová, warned that the number of such children has been growing. She cited that in 2013, as many as 3,090 children were taken from their parents who came from Eastern Europe. Is this number realistic, and if so, how would you put this trend into context for the readers?
GF: I would say that the first point to be absolutely clear about is that our legislation in the UK puts the protection of the child – of whatever nationality - as absolutely central to what we’re trying to do. Their welfare is the paramount factor. That’s what we are trying to ensure. Local authorities have a more devolved approach in the UK about how we actually manage the system. A local authority has a duty to act and take proceedings to court if there’s evidence that a child is being harmed or at significant risk of harm. It’s an obligation on them to do everything they can to protect the welfare of that child. It’s not a step that is taken lightly.
As for the numbers: I’ve seen some coverage in the media as well, but, for example, the numbers from the Slovak Centre for the International Protection of Children show that from last year, there were 72 court proceedings concerning 94 Slovak children, of whom seven were adopted in the UK. That is the final step taken. The UK court will try and do everything possible to find the best place for the child to be looked after and will explore all the different options.
We as an embassy have done some work to support an exchange of information between British and Slovak authorities. We supported a study visit from Slovak social workers to the UK to meet the central authority in the UK, but also to go and see some local authorities where there have been cases. We believe that the contact between the two groups and exchanging of information and respective practices is actually the most effective mechanism and the best way for moving forward together.
TSS: Earlier this year, UK Minister for Trade and Investment Ian Livingston opened the British Slovak Business Centre in Bratislava. What will be the role of the centre?
GF: The British Government provided a grant to business centres across the world, and there are a number of business centres active in this region. The one in Bratislava was the second to open, which is very positive, and we will continue to work very closely with the British Slovak Business Centre. We still have a UK trade and investment team here at the embassy, but what we are increasingly doing is providing support to small and medium-sized companies through the business centres. We work in partnerships and the companies will not notice any difference, except there are more resources that we can now put to providing support to them, helping them understand the market they are trying to break into. The business centre was formally opened by Lord Livingston when he was here in early March, and they have been providing what we call “service delivery”, i.e. providing support to British companies, from April 1.
TSS: The media recently reported about several cases of industrial companies moving their production from UK to Slovakia. What are, in your opinion, the reasons behind this development?
GF: A number of companies are opening production facilities here, or potentially expanding facilities into this country. A key part, obviously, is if they are particularly looking to expand into this region: Slovakia is very well placed as a kind of crossroads, a key place within a wider region. Geographical proximity to a very large market and also a very open economy, with a well-educated, hard-working workforce: I can absolutely understand why a number of companies are choosing to set up here.
TSS: In your opinion, have all potential Slovak-British business links and British investments in Slovakia been fully explored? What segments of the Slovak economy might offer further opportunities?
GF: I think we have to be frank and say we can do more. We also can do more with the region as a whole, and that was part of why Lord Livingston came with 35 British companies when visiting Slovakia, and he also made a regional tour through the V4 countries. Part of that is providing more information to British companies about what opportunities are here. We have a number of key sectors we’re trying to work on: advanced engineering, the automotive industry, energy and infrastructure. We’ve got a great deal of UK expertise in financial services, professional services, life sciences and health care.
TSS: What are the energy security challenges that the UK is currently facing? Do tensions between Ukraine and Russia affect the UK in terms of energy security? Great Britain will build its first new nuclear power station in 20 years. What has been the public’s response to the plan?
GF: In 2009 I worked at the energy security department in the Foreign Office, so I have been through an energy security crisis before. Of course, UK energy security is part of the collective EU energy security. Obviously, if you look at it from the UK perspective, we also have to do more work on reducing our dependence, and increasing energy efficiency is a key area. We definitely see tackling energy security and climate change as two sides of the same coin. So we are trying to come up with low carbon solutions to reduce dependence. Obviously, the UK is very keen to be doing more on nuclear energy, which obviously is something the Slovaks are keen on as well.
We believe that nuclear is a very good low carbon approach to energy generation. The state aid case for the new nuclear power plant, Hinkley Point C, is currently going through the process at Brussels, and we are pursuing it with the expectation that it will also help set the benchmark for others who wish to go through nuclear construction programmes in other countries of the EU as well. The support for nuclear has increased in the UK over the last couple of years.
TSS: You will end your mission to Slovakia in two months. What are your impressions? What surprised you the most here, positively or negatively; something you did not expect?
GF: The thing I have been really struck by is the openness of the system here and the fact that colleagues and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and state offices are all very accessible. I really appreciate that the minister of foreign affairs, his state secretaries and his officials were there to discus issues when we needed to discuss issues. The fact that system is open has never made me feel anything but phenomenally welcomed. The only thing that has been slightly disappointing is the fact that I am here only for a year, so while I have tried my best to get out of Bratislava as much as possible and visit other parts of the country, there are unfortunately areas that I have not had the opportunity to visit.