As the new British ambassador in Athens, I begin my mission in Greece at a challenging time.
I’ve been struck by the anxiety and even sadness expressed by many Greeks about Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. Much of that is based in uncertainty about what this means for the future of Europe, and for the relationship between the United Kingdom and Greece. That’s understandable. And that was why Prime Minister Theresa May’s speech last week sought to provide as much clarity as possible for our partners about what the United Kingdom is seeking from the forthcoming negotiations and beyond.
Above all, we intend to remain the best friend and neighbor possible to our European partners. We are not seeking to undermine the European Union. Indeed it is in the best interests of the UK that the EU should succeed. A prosperous, stable Greece is a critical element in that, and I believe Greece has a strong interest in the specific outcomes to which the prime minister committed the UK government to pursue on 23 January.
First – the prime minister said repeatedly in her speech that our cooperation with all European partners on defense, security and foreign policy, including intelligence sharing, will continue. The security of our citizens is not negotiable. With Greece, that means the highly valued collaboration we have with partners in the Greek armed forces, police, coast guard and customs on migration, counterterrorism, and organized crime will remain a priority.
Second, our aim of a bold and ambitious free-trade agreement, which gives British and European companies the maximum freedom to trade across our markets, can only be of benefit to Greece. The United Kingdom is the second biggest export market for Greece’s pharmaceutical products, and third largest for agricultural products; while the freedom for the British financial and professional services to continue to trade across borders will benefit both the City of London and the Greek shipping sector, one of its most important customers.
Third: There is much concern about the status of EU nationals in the UK after Brexit. Britain values very highly the contribution of Greeks who live and work and study in the UK – for example the hugely talented Greek clinical staff in, for example, the National Health Service – as well as the 10,000 Greek students in our universities. The rights and benefits of current students, and those starting in academic year 17/18, are secure to the end of their courses. And we want to guarantee the rights of all EU citizens already living in Britain, as well as the rights of British nationals in other member-states, as early as we can. Greece’s support on this would be very welcome.
Greeks know Britain well enough to understand that the Brexit decision was not based on extreme nationalist, xenophobic or populist views. Rather it reflects the feeling among the majority of British voters that the EU has not responded fully to the diversity of its member-countries and their interests. In the UK’s case, it was about the desire to make our own laws and control our own affairs.
Britain is not the only European country where that is felt. Nor are we alone, I believe, in believing that a decision to take a different path from the EU norm should not merit a punitive approach. Rather, mutual interest, shared values, and good will should allow us to reach a positive agreement. I believe Greece will be an important voice in that process. And my task here is to ensure our strong and effective bilateral relationship remains intact and indeed, renewed and strengthened through the negotiations, and beyond.