On his first official visit to Dubrovnik and after just eight months in the position we caught up with Her Majesty's Ambassador to the Republic of Croatia, Mr Simon Thomas. He has served in various diplomatic posts overseas, including Warsaw, the UK Mission to the United Nations in New York and the EU Representation to the EU in Brussels. He was Deputy Head of Mission in Buenos Aires from 2009 to 2013, covering both Argentina and Paraguay. From 2016 to 2019, he was Deputy Head of Mission at the British Embassy in in Harare, Zimbabwe.
So you've been in the position as the Ambassador since July of last year. How have the first 8 months in the role been and what have you accomplished?
Well, I think the first thing to say is that time really flies, those eight months seem to have passed in the blink of an eye. I think that’s partly because I have been welcomed so warmly by Croatians, not only in Zagreb but all over the country. Also we have had such a busy agenda with the Croatian government and at the British embassy for the whole of that period, whether it’s been working together on Covid-19, or preparing for the COP26 climate summit or indeed working together on this horrible war in Ukraine. Of course, over that period we’ve had numerous visits from envoys, recently we had the UK Defence Secretary and we’ve signed a new defence agreement with Croatia.
Also we’ve been busy in the private sector, and speaking to companies in the country, just the other day there was an event with tech start-ups looking to expand into the UK. From education to culture, we’ve covered all angles. Which is rather fitting as this year we celebrate the 30th anniversary of diplomatic relations between our two countries, and it feels as though there is a lot to celebrate. Another thing that I’ve been mindful to do is to explore the country, I might be based in Zagreb but I am the ambassador for the whole country.
Dubrovnik is a city that has a special place in the hearts of Brits - Photo - Bozo Radic/CROPIX
This is your first official visit to Dubrovnik, a city that is a magnet for British tourists, in fact UK tourists have been the most numerous for decades. What can we expect for the UK travel market this season? Do you think that the Covid-19 situation and the war in Ukraine will have a negative effect on travel this summer?
It would be foolish to say that with both the still present Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine, that these two factors won’t have an effect on travel. These are both extraordinary events that are weighing on all of our minds. But at the same time I think there is also a real feeling, that after a difficult couple of years, that Brits really just want to get away and frankly Dubrovnik is a city that has a special place in the hearts of Brits. They have been loyal visitors for many years. And I know, after speaking to the Mayor of Dubrovnik during my visit, that he did a lot to keep the route open during the pandemic for British tourists. So clearly we have a joint objective to return the tourist situation back to pre-pandemic times, where Brits come here and enjoy holidays.
And frankly it’s not hard to see why Dubrovnik is so popular with British tourists, partly due to the sunshine and amazing history, but it’s also more than that, there is a strong social link.
For example, I visited a local school where the teachers have had links with the UK and the children are really enjoying learning English. We simply feel at home here.
The UK Ambassador talks with Mark Thomas in Dubrovnik - Photo Bozo Radic/CROPIX
Is there something that has stood out during your visit to Dubrovnik?
There is nothing quite like that core of the Old City, and it’s hard to pick out a highlight as it’s all so beautiful. I went up to the top of the Srđ mountain overlooking the whole city and the vista is just amazing. But actually it was also a reminder, as I visited the Homeland War museum, that the city didn’t always look so peaceful and elegant for obvious reasons. I was really glad to visit the museum and get a sense of the hardships the city went through.
What are your feelings on the NATO, and indeed UK, response to the Ukraine conflict?
The first thing to say about Ukraine, and not just on a professional level but on a personal one, is that I am sickened by the images that we are seeing and the stories coming out of Ukraine, from this totally unprovoked, illegal and unnecessary action by Russia. In terms of the response, what’s been most overwhelming for me is the unity of it. And not just from NATO but from countries from all over the world. And not only in condemning it but making sure that Russia has to pay a price for what they are doing.
As far as the UK reaction, we’ve had an important role even before the conflict began in trying to share the intelligence that we’d received in order to warn people of what was likely to happen. We also worked with allies to try and deter Russia from actually invading. But then since it became clear that Russia was taking the path of war we worked together on putting tough sanctions on Russia. In the UK now we have more than 1,200 companies and individuals under sanctions, as well as putting pressure on their banks and air travel.
And also, perhaps more importantly, we have put a lot of support into Ukraine, whether on a humanitarian side or on the lethal weapons they require to defend their country.
Although you asked me about the UK, it isn’t one country alone that is going to make a difference, this is about a united front. And Croatia has also been standing up really firmly against what Russia is doing, from sanctions to help and accepting refugees. This is a collective effort and the unity is really impressive.
And Croatia has also been standing up really firmly against what Russia is doing - Photo - Bozo Radic/CROPIX
The UK visa scheme for Ukrainian refugees has been widely criticised, with allegations that the whole process is slow and unworkable and just overly bureaucratic. Whereas in contrast the EU waived all visa requirements for Ukrainian refugees. Can we expect that this visa scheme will be lifted in the near future to expedite the resettlement of Ukrainian refugees in the UK?
We’ve now got two separate schemes in place to help people displaced by the war. The first is a special visa scheme, in which we have lifted all requirements apart from the most basic security ones, to allow people who have links to the UK to be able to come. Around 23,000 visas have been issued at the time of speaking. There is also a scheme where Brits are opening their homes and are saying that they are willing to welcome refugees. This is a new scheme that has just started, but I’m positive we’ll see some good results from that. And it’s important to point out that neither scheme has an upper cap in terms of numbers.
Brits are opening their homes and are saying that they are willing to welcome refugees - Photo Bozo Radic/CROPIX
The British Chancellor Rishi Sunak recently said “it was always inevitable” that Brexit would affect Britain’s trade with the rest of the EU. Trade between the UK and the EU is estimated to be down by 15 percent this year. Have the “challenges” of Brexit been just too challenging? And could we see a Brexit 2.0 or “Brexit light” in the future?
To start with the Chancellor’s remarks, it was indeed inevitable that trade would be affected in some way, and more widely I think was inevitable too that there would be teething problems in the process of decoupling ourselves with an organisation that we’d been intertwined with for years. After all, the process of joining the EU was designed to be one-way, entry and not exit. But it’s also true we’ve resolved the vast majority of the issues we were negotiating with the EU on, and things are settling into a new normal.
The terms of trade we have established with the EU are the best it has with any country outside the Single Market and the UK remains a very attractive place to do business. So while some businesses will inevitably decide that the new arrangements don’t work for them, there are many others taking up new opportunities – including, I’m pleased to say, Croatian companies. I have spoken to several Croatian companies who have already or are looking now to expand into the UK. We may have left the EU but we haven’t left Europe and we have many shared interests.
From next year British citizens visiting the EU will have to have a travel document, an ETIAS, before travelling the to the EU. Whilst the actual application is fairly straightforward, do you believe that this “visa” might discourage British tourist to travel to the EU? And will the UK introduce a similar travel document for EU citizens?
Every bureaucratic measurement is obviously an inconvenience, but the two things that I would say about this preclearance travel document is that firstly it’ll be more straightforward than the Covid documents that we’ve all learned to live with. And secondly, the reason that this process is being brought in is partly because it will reduce the number of people being turned back at the borders. I would say that in the future the UK will introduce a similar system for EU citizens. The main thing that these systems provide is ease of clearance across borders.
We want to enjoy the beauties of Dubrovnik for many years to come in a sustainable way - Photo - Bozo Radic
And British citizens living in Croatia have seen one or two “wrinkles” after Brexit, even though they were promised the same rights as EU citizens as part of the deal. For example, the fact that they were forced to use green number plates, which are reserved for third country nationals, amongst others. Are you satisfied that these teething problems have been ironed out?
This is one of the areas that we’ve being working really closely with the Croatian government on for the last couple of years. And I have to say that we’ve had excellent co-operation with the government and they have taken a pragmatic and people focused approach. On the whole the feedback that we’ve received has been positive, the number plate issue was one that took a little longer to sort out, but now it has been.
You are right to draw a distinction between those Brits who have been here since before Brexit came into effect, on the 31st of December 2020, as they continue to enjoy all the benefits they had before.
For people who chose to move to Croatia after that date then they, of course, will be treated differently, that’s due to the fact that Britain is no longer in the EU.
And finally, on a lighter note, this may be your first official visit to Dubrovnik, but we hope it isn’t your last. You have met with both the Mayor of Dubrovnik, Mato Franković, and the County Prefect, Nikola Dobroslavić. What topics did you discuss?
I had a really good meeting with both the Mayor and the County Prefect and not surprisingly tourism was top of the agenda. They were very clear just how welcome British tourists are in Dubrovnik and how much they are looking forward to having a more normal season this year. We also found time to discuss the importance of sustainable tourism and the challenges that brings. How a beautiful, and quite small city, copes with the large numbers of tourists that come here every year. This is both an opportunity and a challenge. This led us into another topic which is climate change and the environment. We want to enjoy the beauties of Dubrovnik for many years to come in a sustainable way. And you won’t be surprised to hear that they invited me to come back to enjoy the summer festival and to explore the region further. And I made them a solemn promise that I would indeed be back to the city very soon and I would try to come for the opening of the Dubrovnik Summer Festival.