Charging ahead for closer ties

  • 2011-06-02
  • Interview by Nicholas Brown

Although not historically so close, Anglo-Lithuanian relations today are very much a significant affair, with rapidly increasing trade, investment and even educative links increasing between these two countries. To discover the extent of such links and future relations to come, The Baltic Times spoke with Stephen Conlon, the acting head of the British Diplomatic Mission in Lithuania, a man who has extensive experience when it comes to the Nordic states, the EU and the collective European economy as a whole. He is also a champion of the EU policy on the free movement of workers, which, while unknown to the majority, is no doubt owed the gratitude of thousands of Lithuanian migrant workers.

As the UK Charge d’ Affaires in Lithuania, what is your role?
At this time, I am the acting head of the UK’s diplomatic mission in Vilnius, while it is my responsibility to represent the political, economic and social interests of Her Majesty’s government. We have three priorities – Prosperity; Security; and Consular protection of British citizens. When it comes to everyday routine, my role includes briefing Lithuanian government officials on the UK’s priorities in the EU and lobbying them to support our position, ensuring the embassy staff are happy and motivated, and  preparing for visits by ministers and senior officials to Lithuania - a recent notable visit was by David Lidington, the minister for Europe, who held the country in great esteem.

Such a position is no doubt an honor; how was it possible to reach the position you are in today?
I joined the Foreign Office one and a half years after graduating from the University of Surrey, having studied Russian and Law. After a stint at BT [British Telecom] following my graduation, I applied for a job at the FCO after noticing an advert in a national newspaper – following my successful application I began work in the Economic Policy Department, followed by the EU department and then a short posting to Stockholm in 2003.On my return to London, I worked on the free movement of workers in preparation of the then-new member states’ accession to the EU in 2004. I then spent four years in Helsinki, heading up the Trade and Investment team, encouraging UK companies to export to Finland and Finnish companies to invest into the UK. After which I successfully applied for the position of Deputy Head of Mission and HM Consol in Lithuania, which I was lucky enough to be granted! Being situated in Vilnius is very fortunate for me, as I am still able to visit my friends and acquaintances in Helsinki.

In short, what would you say is the purpose of the British Embassy in Vilnius?
This would be threefold: the first is to look after all British citizens residing in the country, secondly to look after British interests, whether economic or political and finally to liaise with the Lithuanian government over policies such as NATO or the EU or the OSCE.

How would you say you came to work at the foreign office in the first place?
Throughout my life I have always been incredibly keen to work abroad, a desire that was no doubt reinforced by the ‘sandwich year’ I spent in Moscow during my time at university. My interest in politics and the workings of the government led me to apply for a job with the office. So far, I have enjoyed my time in this line of work!

How do you see Anglo-Lithuanian relations evolving over the next decade?
I am positive that there will be even stronger ties between the two countries. Recently, all Nordic/Baltic ministers met in London to discuss common issues and interests, which once again reinforced the idea that the UK shares similar views to Lithuania on many issues, such as the further promotion of the single market in the EU. I’ve met many Lithuanians who have worked or studied in the UK and are now keen anglophiles, wanting to keep in touch with the UK and its culture. It isn’t only students who study in the UK; we are also noticing an increasing number of Lithuanian schoolchildren, attending British schools. Some of these schools, such as Clifton and Wycliffe, have been to Lithuania to attract new pupils.

As far as FDI (foreign direct investment) is concerned, would you also see this to be on the rise?
There is evidently a correlation between FDI and our countries’ relations. Just like our relations, this is no doubt set to increase; in fact, earlier today I spoke with two such companies considering establishing themselves here. Lithuania is an amazing location. It has a highly skilled workforce and real estate prices are lower than many other areas of the EU. There are several UK companies already established here – Barclays, Vita, a UK foam manufacturer Aviva, and Lietuvos Draudimas, which is part of the RSA group.

What would you perceive to be the future for the UK economy at this time?
Despite the deficit and the economic downturn, the UK economy will grow by 2.5 percent year on year, and  by 2.8 percent in 2013 and 2014. Employment within the country is on the rise, with 143,000 new jobs created in the first three months of this year alone. The unemployment rate in the UK currently stands at 7.8 percent, with the U.S. at 8.8 percent and the EU, 9.9 percent. William Hague [UK foreign minister] has made the promotion of the UK economy abroad a priority. The UK is one of the world’s largest exporters. The government has made several initiatives to help small and medium companies. For example, there has been an increase in research and development tax credits by 200 percent. Corporate tax has also been lowered. The UK government is also regenerating areas. For example, in East London, the innovative creation of a ‘Tech-City’ is underway, which will be comprised solely of ‘hi-tech’ companies, SongDeck and TweetDeck being notable tenants. This project is linked with the London Olympics, with the benefit of urban re-development in East London at the core of the projects’ concept.

What is your stance on immigration into the UK by Lithuanian migrant workers?
To be part of the EU is to allow the free movement of people. The immigration of Lithuanians into the UK brings with it both different sets of skills and plugs within labor gaps. The successful construction of the Olympic Village will no doubt owe a large amount of gratitude to Lithuanians working on the project. We are also seeing that this migration is not permanent and some Lithuanians are returning to Lithuania, bringing with them new skills and experiences. One has even come back and established a British bar in Vilnius!

Given your position within the embassy, you must surely work very hard. What do you do to relax?
I love to go into town and enjoy the wonderful variety of restaurants and bars the city has to offer. My friends and acquaintances that have visited me during my time here have commended the impressive standard of establishments here. I am also currently studying for my MBA, on a distance learning course, something that the Foreign Office widely encourages to improve the management skills of the staff. Being British, I of course love football. The embassies in Vilnius regularly hold football matches together, with the British embassy joining forces with the Japanese on our last outing. Weather permitting, Sereikiskiu Parkas offers excellent facilities for tennis; otherwise I am a regular at the SEB Arena. I also enjoy running, having participated in the Vilnius half marathon.

Would you say that your work affects your private life?
I do not yet have a family of my own, so I am fortunate that my work does not affect my private life to such a great extent.

In your opinion, what do you believe Lithuania can do to strengthen itself economically?
The encouragement of increased investment into the field of hi-tech companies will no doubt reap numerous benefits. It is also essential to ensure that the location of such new business should be spread across the country, thus also spreading out the collective wealth.

Do you see an increase in British tourists to Lithuania?
Since the creation of new routes by Ryanair and Whizz Air, a considerable influx has taken place. This can be seen especially by the fact that the AITO (Association of Independent Tour Operators) are holding their annual conference in Vilnius. Vilnius especially is, no doubt, a beautiful city, cheap, and also has excellent weather (both winter and summer!) Which, of course, proves very attractive to tourists.

How much of your term do you have left to serve?
The term for a posting in Lithuania, considered one of the ‘easy countries,’ given its location within the EU, is for four years, while postings to places such as Afghanistan and Iraq only lasts for 6 months. At this point in time, I have two years left in my term.

What have been your impressions of the city so far?
The city has impressed me considerably! It is unquestionably beautiful. The Old Town is lovely with unparalleled architecture. I have made lots of friends during my time here, both ex-pat and Lithuanian. In comparison with London, the city is wonderfully easy to get around with green everywhere you go.