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MF DNES Interview with HMA Jan Thompson

The United Kingdom will start the process of leaving the European Union by March 2017. Czech Republic does not need to worry about lessening the ties with this superpower, says the British Ambassador to Prague Jan Thompson

In an interview for iDNES.cz, she explained that the United Kingdom is bound with long lasting friendship to the Czechs. She denied refuted speculations that the brexit is not a done thing.

The United Kingdom will leave the European Union within two years of activating Article 50. How will the relationship between the UK and other member states incl. the Czech Republic change?

Well the first thing to say is that while the UK is leaving the European Union, we are not leaving Europe! We are confident that our future relationship with the EU will reflect the kind of mature, cooperative partnership that close friends and allies enjoy. Across a whole host of areas, from trade and investment to defence and security, we expect cooperation with our European partners to continue - and indeed in many cases to strengthen. This is surely in our mutual interest. Let’s be positive: we have a great future together!

In which areas do the United Kingdom and the Czech Republic cooperate?

How long have you got? As two great trading nations, bilateral trade and investment is clearly a key component of our bilateral relationship. The United Kingdom is now the fourth most important export market for the Czech Republic: among other things British consumers love Czech-made cars and Czech beer! And some 700 British companies are now operating in the Czech Republic, creating jobs and wealth. When British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was in Prague last month he was delighted to see so many British retailers trading on Czech high streets. My Embassy is working actively with British and Czech exporters and investors to drive trade and investment even higher.

Or take security and defence as another example. We have just announced 71 new projects to strengthen cooperation between the Czech and British armed forces and to improve fighting readiness between 2016 and 2019. These projects cover new training initiatives, formal education and personnel exchange programmes. They build on existing cooperation such as the contingent of British military advisers who have been working with Czech counterparts at the Vyškov Military Academy since 2000 to train international military personnel for international deployments.

Cooperation in science and research is another area of real strength: in the past five years Czech and British scientists have co-authored over 5,300 scientific articles. And I could go on…..

What is Czech Republic’s status when negotiating treaties with the United Kingdom? Are the Czechs standing at the end of the queue, after the Germans and French?

The Czechs and the Brits share a very special affection and friendship. We are incredibly like-minded - on issues from free trade, to energy, to the digital economy. Our armed forces collaborate closely, and have served alongside one another in theatres overseas such as Afghanistan. We share the same sense of pragmatism, and a very similar sense of humour. Nearly 1,500 Czechs are studying at British universities, with many British students coming in the opposite direction. And our friendship has deep roots: we Brits have never forgotten the contribution of the brave Czech airmen who flew with the Royal Air Force during the Second World War. We are eternally grateful to them. Add to this the very clear interest we have in maintaining and growing our trading relationship with the Czech Republic and developing our cultural, educational and scientific links, and you can see that we have every reason to prioritise a strong new bilateral partnership with the Czech Republic after we leave the EU.

Why is the Czech Republic an important partner for the United Kingdom?

I think I’ve already set that out fairly clearly. But let me add that as fellow EU members we have worked together incredibly closely to promote free trade and to boost growth and competitiveness. The Czech Republic is also a key NATO ally: we value highly the contribution you make to European and global security and would like to see this strengthened further. Of course, the cultural relationship is in excellent shape. British comedian Eddie Izzard sold out Prague’s Kongresové centrum last week, while Brno, Ostrava and Prague have all hosted an annual Shakespeare Festival since 2002.

In which areas do you see the largest potential for future cooperation between the two countries? And why?

Today’s global challenges require a global response. The UK is the fifth largest economy in the world. We are a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, a member of NATO, the G8, G20 and the Commonwealth. We are the only major country meeting both the NATO target to spend 2% of our GDP on defence and the UN target to spend 0.7% on development. We have led the response against global threats such as the rise of Daesh and the spread of the Ebola virus. With so many shared interests, we will want to continue working with the Czech Republic to promote free trade and democracy and to defend our common security, as a means of improving the welfare of both Brits and Czechs.

The legal status after the brexit is important for the Czechs living in the UK. Can the UK guarantee now that the Czechs can continue to work in the UK?

As Boris Johnson said when he was in Prague last month, we value highly the presence, participation and contribution of the 40,000 or so Czechs living in the UK. They make a very significant contribution to our economy. Prime Minister Theresa May has been very clear that she wants to protect the status of EU nationals already living in the UK, and that the only circumstances in which that wouldn’t be possible is if British citizens’ rights in European member states were not protected in return.

What do you think about a claim that the UK will lack labour in sectors of economy in which the British refuse to work, after the UK expatriates foreign workers.

As I’ve made clear, we value the contribution made both by Czech workers and by workers from other EU and non-EU countries. They have helped to turn the UK into the economic powerhouse it is today. Our economy will continue to need this. More generally, we are confident that we are embarking on our post-Brexit future from a position of strength, well placed to deal with the challenges - and take advantage of the opportunities - that lie ahead.

To be clear, the UK remains very much open for business. In recent months we have attracted record levels of investment from some of the world’s most innovative companies. Take for example Nissan’s decision to build 2 next-generation models at its UK plant, securing 7,000 jobs. Or a record £24 billion investment from Japan’s Softbank; Jaguar Land Rover’s announcement of a £500 million expansion and 3,000 new jobs; investment of £200 million from Honda and £275 million from GlaxoSmithKline; a new Apple headquarters; or Google’s estimated £1 billion investment, creating 3,000 new jobs.

After the June referendum, there has been news of an increase of hate crimes against immigrants. What is the situation now and how does the Government try to fight such attacks?

We have been very concerned indeed about the spike in hate crimes that occurred after the referendum. We take each and every one of these incidents incredibly seriously - there’s no place for them in our society and we condemn them in the strongest possible terms. The number of such reported offences has now declined, and is at similar levels to before the referendum. But that is no reason for complacency. The British Government published a new hate crime action plan in July. It focuses on reducing incidences of hate crime, increasing reporting of such incidents, and ensuring that all criminal justice partners deliver the appropriate outcomes for victims. We Brits are proud of our multi-racial, multi-faith, multi-cultural society. Indeed, London must be the most diverse city on the planet! Tolerance, and a commitment to defeat extremism, are for us a badge of faith.

What would need to happen for the Government not to activate article 50 by March?

We have been very clear that we will invoke Article 50 no later than the end of March 2017. By this point, Britain will begin its formal negotiations to leave the EU. I’m not sure whether you’re thinking of the Article 50 appeal case currently before our Supreme Court? The final judgement on this is expected in January. But the government is confident that plans to notify under article 50 by the end of March 2017 will be unaffected. The British people made their views very clear in the referendum in June. Turnout was high, and the result decisive. The Government intends now to act on the British people’s orders.

The opposition criticises the Government that it communicates very little about the various kinds of brexit. How can PM Theresay May increase the transparency of the brexit?

There won’t be a running commentary on every twist and turn of the upcoming negotiations. I’ve spent a lot of my diplomatic career involved in multilateral negotiations, and I can tell you that that’s not how negotiations work. It’s certainly not the way to get the best outcome. But the Government has promised a series of parliamentary debates on the issues concerned. These are already underway.

One of the main issues in relation with the brexit is the question whether the UK remains in the single European market. How important is staying in the single market for the current Government?

We want British companies to have the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the Single Market, and to let European businesses do the same in the UK. I’m sure that the Czech Republic, which runs an impressive trade surplus with the UK, wants that too.

PM May claims that she will not step down from making immigration policy more strict. The free movement of people across borders is a EU condition to remain in the single market. Under what conditions can both of these objectives be achieved?

Immigration was certainly a factor in the UK’s referendum. Net migration running at over 300,000 annually puts a huge strain on our infrastructure and public services. We would like to see net migration to the UK fall to sustainable levels. But we recognise that this is a complex issue and that there is no quick fix. Look, let’s be under no illusion, we have a negotiation ahead of us. It will require some give and take. And in the meantime we need to do more work to tackle abuses of the system such as sham marriages. This can also make a difference.

There is the issue of Scotland leaving the United Kingdom. How damaging this would be for the UK, and how can this be prevented?

In 2014 the Scottish people decided in a legal, fair and decisive referendum to remain a strong part of the UK. That result should be respected. And that is how we will approach our negotiations now for leaving the EU: together as one United Kingdom. We will work closely with the Scottish Government to ensure we get the best possible deal for all parts of the UK as we leave the EU. And that means giving the Scottish Government every opportunity to have their say as we form our negotiating strategy.

How will the brexit affect the work of ambassadors?

It’s a new world for the UK, and a new world for British diplomacy. It brings challenges, but it also brings huge opportunities. We are determined to seize these. In the Czech Republic I am determined to help build a new, stronger bilateral partnership between our two countries which will endure long into the future. I have every confidence that this is achievable. It is in both our countries’ interests.

What do you, personally, think of the brexit? Do you agree with it or do you think that the UK would benefit more from staying in the European Union?

Look, the British people have spoken. I fully respect the decision they took. My job now is to seize the opportunities that decision presents. And to reassure our friends and partners, including those in the Czech Republic, that we are the same outward-looking, globally-minded, flexible and dynamic country we have always been. I have no doubt that a bright future for UK-Czech collaboration awaits.