Little old Estonian ladies like nothing more than handsome young British soldiers, U.K. Ambassador Theresa Bubbear says.
The diplomat says she is lucky in that Brexit is being offset by the British military presence in Estonia for which she is thanked years after troops first arrived.
Brexit finally happened, you’re out. What does that mean for you as the U.K. ambassador?
Not much in practice. Brexit started happening when I arrived in Estonia immediately after the 2016 referendum. When January 31 finally dawned, I almost expected something big to happen, but the next morning was just the next morning and life goes on much as it has.
Very little has changed in reality. If anything, it’s quieter now. We had a lot of running around in connection with Brexit details and now that it’s done, the focus will move to London and Brussels.
There is far less pressure on us to go and find out what Estonia thinks about various things right now, while it will return as negotiations are underway again.
I am no longer in the EU ambassadors’ group. But Estonia is small, and everyone here is friendly and open toward the U.K. Therefore, if I want to know what the prime minister or foreign minister have to say, I don’t need to attend a lunch with 27 other ambassadors. I can simply call their offices and ask.
Comparing your notes to those of U.K. ambassadors in other countries, what did Estonian agencies think of Brexit?
I’ve always said that my job is probably easier than that of any other British ambassador in the European Union. Your agencies are small – you can talk to the same person about six different topics. Our level of access is brilliant, your officials have been incredibly accommodating – especially the Ministry of Internal Affairs that worked the hardest on matters pertaining to British citizens.
It took a while for your officials to understand what we were talking about. When I first arrived, the mood was that Brexit would just go away if Estonia waited long enough. It took some time – as it did in the U.K. – for reality to dawn on people.
How long did it take you?
I probably still considered it during my first year here. We had no details and the U.K. was fighting over whether it would happen or not.
Everyone I met here at first said that it would not happen. Of course, I told them it would.
It took me about a year to come to believe in my heart and my head that it would happen and that we must be prepared. I would say that it took the ministries I talk to about as long. Of course, they understood it on the face of things, but it took time before they realized it would require steps to be taken. Once they did, everything worked brilliantly.
I have never received a negative reply from an Estonian ministry on any matter. It is one of the things I like about this country, that you can pick up the phone and speak English to someone who understands you, is able to answer you in English and will give you the answer if they know it.
No one is playing information games. I have worked in the Soviet Union where no one said anything. I’ve worked in Africa where by the time they find the answer and give it to you, several years will have passed. I’ve worked in Hungary where they want to know who you are, why do you want to know what you want to know and why isn’t anyone more important asking the question.
In Finland and Estonia, if you ask someone a question, they will answer. It makes life a whole lot easier.
We have pursued a lot of cooperation on various levels. Our prime ministers have met on several occasions. I’ve been present for those meetings. They were truly warm and friendly.
Things have progressed smoothly. People from your internal affairs, foreign and social ministries have had tea with British citizens at my residence to talk to them and answer their very specific questions. I value it greatly because it is a situation we created and dragged Estonians into, and they were willing to help and hear us out.
What is worrying your citizens the most?
It is difficult to sum up. There are 1,200-1,400 U.K. citizens living in Estonia. Every person has their own question.
“I need hip surgery, who will be paying for it?”, “Will the U.K. continue to pay my special pension?”
There are Brits living in Estonia who are married to people from outside the EU and worried whether their spouse will be able to travel to the U.K. with them. There are people who travel a lot.
Every question was very specific and crucial for the person asking it. That is why I was very grateful for the ministries’ participation. We could only have given vague answers. But representatives of ministries were able to tell people that they would look at their residency situation and how it would work.
We had some very emotional meetings where people were worried about what would happen in case they died, whether their Estonian wife could take their British kids back to the U.K. There were very specific questions that no website can answer but that meant the world to the one asking them.
Estonian law allows a person to only have one citizenship. Have you heard of British citizens giving up their passport in favor of an Estonian one?
I have not heard of such cases, but that does not mean there haven’t been any. We don’t care how many passports a person has.
I know. But we are not telling anyone to give up their U.K. passport. I’ve heard that Brits have inquired about it, but I don’t know of any cases. I do not believe we’re at a point where people feel they should make such a decision. That said, I imagine we might get there.
Are there some exclusively EU formats you are no longer invited to?
There is the traditional lunch by the Council presidency for EU ambassadors that the prime minister and foreign minister also attend, sometimes also the defense minister. There are two presidencies every year that means two opportunities to ask the premiere or foreign minister questions.
However, like I said, both are so accessible in Estonia that if I have something I want to ask the PM, I can just call their office and receive an answer. And I’m rather likely to bump into the prime minister in person. It is also different from the situation in the U.K. where it takes weeks or even months of convincing to get access.
The same goes for your foreign ministry and all others for that matter.
So, while I might miss a couple of events, I’m not afraid of missing out on information. A lot of what is discussed at those meetings is specific to the EU and something I don’t need to know anymore. And if they talk about Estonian affairs, I can get that information elsewhere.
I have worked in Estonia for three years now, making me one of the longest-standing ambassadors. This is useful as I have personal contacts, I already know everybody. I have real relationships.
Diplomatic relations are easy – I’m the U.K. ambassador, and I can call people up, introduce myself as such and say I want to come and see them. But it is better if they want to see Theresa, not the British ambassador. I have invested a lot in this over the past three years and I can see it start paying off.
Which projects are you personally proud of?
We have made great efforts in the field of education for girls. To help teenage girls build confidence, believe that they can do anything.
We also had pop-up embassies to celebrate Estonia’s 100th anniversary. I visited all Estonian counties, met with mayors and the people, asked them for tea. We met with schoolchildren, university professors. We found British citizens in all kinds of places, citizens we never knew about. They came to say hello.
We also took a lot of soldiers with us. Little old Estonian ladies like nothing better than handsome young British soldiers.
I hope there were no #MeToo situations between British soldiers and lonely Estonian old ladies!
No, I believe British soldiers liked those trips very much. But old ladies did ask me to tell soldiers they were handsome young men. It was very sweet!
People were literally queuing to take a picture with them. As far as I know, they only pinched the cheeks of British troops.
But the turnout was solid. Everywhere we went, we had a tea party and everyone was invited. Sometimes, several hundred people turned up – from babies to old ladies. Some just wanted a free cup of tea and a piece of cake or were simply curious, but that doesn’t matter. We wanted to listen to people and learn about life in Rapla, for example, and the possibilities there.
If you offer someone a cup of tea and cake, they’ll tell you almost everything.
What did you learn?
I learned a lot from meetings with local government heads. The lesson I learned – I even studied strategic management for official qualification last year – is the importance of the leader from the point of view of feelings of community.
It is not very scientific, but I can tell right away whether a place is successful and progressive or whether it’s going out. I learned a lot about leadership. It is not necessarily about individuals who were all very helpful and kind. But it was very interesting to see how people do things. Things that have an effect and those that have a negative effect.
There were very small places that were buzzing. And there were places that should have been buzzing but weren’t. I learned a lot.
We also found a lot of Brits.
Where did you find them?
My favorite was in Jõgeva. Someone came up to me at a tea party and said, “You have to meet the Brit who lives in the woods.” That is what they call him.
So, I went to see him – he did look a bit like a Brit who lives in the woods – and said,” Hello, I’m Theresa. What is your name?” And he said, “They call me the Brit who lives in the woods.” I never learned his real name or story. But people like him have been living in places like these forever and are known to all the locals.
We found ballet dancers and medical students in Tartu, soap makers in Saaremaa. We found British citizens we knew nothing about almost everywhere we went, except for Narva.
NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) has happened practically in parallel to Brexit. What has it meant in your work?
It meant a rather abrupt shift of focus. My predecessor here concentrated mainly on trade and technology. My job is 50 percent Brexit and 50 percent eFP. Both were still in the idea stage when I arrived and both are still developing.
EFP is nice in that it has always given us something positive to talk about, even when Brexit was at its most complicated and there was not much to say. The story of soldiers has always been there for us to tell. People are thanking me for British troop presence three years on when I attend meetings. It makes me truly proud.
Even rather important people get emotional when they talk about it and thank me for our presence. It has been the perfect balancer for Brexit. I have had the opportunity to be one of only a few British ambassadors to be able to physically demonstrate that we’re not going anywhere – we are leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe or Estonia.
It has been a great help. I’ve managed to take soldiers with me to meet with ordinary people, they have visited a lot of schools, helped people learn English and exercise, done a lot of charity work, helped out whenever they’ve been asked and wherever it’s been possible. They are courteous, professional and active.
Soldiers are used to the routine, they know what they are doing and why they’re here. They are cooperating brilliantly with the 1st Infantry Brigade, Danes and French. Their work is so smooth it really does impress.
They can also make people laugh. There is something very refreshing about an average British soldier. They do not care if you’re the ambassador – perhaps they would care if you were the queen – but ambassadors, prime minister of presidents are all the same to them.
Many of them had to get a passport to come here, had never been abroad before.
So, their first foreign trip…
… brought them to Estonia.
When I went to meet the first battle group in Tapa, I asked how many of them knew were Estonia was before coming here. I believe only the officer in charge raised their hand.
But it’s good because hundreds have been here now. They rotate every eight or six months. And they know where Estonia is. They like it here. They invite their wives to come and visit Tallinn over the weekend or take a trip to Tartu. Which is why I hope we have done a service to Estonian tourism.
Visiting Tapa always makes me smile. It is somehow peculiar and wonderful that there is this brilliant military base in the middle of Estonia that has come along by leaps and bounds. As soon as it comes into view, it puts a smile on my face – it is so cool.
I hope it has helped boost our reputation and remind Estonians of our dedication. Everyone is talking about 1918, but I would rather talk about 2118 or 2218 – let us look ahead; remember history but look at what we need to do to keep things running. That is my mantra: We were here then, we are here now, and I promise we will be here in the future and not drift off into the middle of the Atlantic.
Translation by Marcus Turovski (BNS)