The phenomenon of returning from abroad
My interview with Ambassador Petr Kubernát was held within the recently renovated Classicist Trauttsmandorff, or Trcku, Palace. We first went to the chapel dedicated to diplomats who lost their lives performing diplomatic services abroad. We both took this time to honour our former colleague Ivo Žďárek, who was killed in the terrorist attack on the Marriott Hotel in Islamabad, Pakistan, in 2008. Although he survived the immediate bombing with minor scratches, right after the attack he helped to evacuate the wounded from the burning building. He didn’t get out of the building a second time, becoming trapped in the fire, where he perished. Such a scenario can sometimes occur in the diplomatic service. The palace is also home to the Diplomatic Academy, where I began my professional career and where I first met the Ambassador in 2002 when he was Deputy Secretary of State for European Affairs. As Director General of the EU Section at the Foreign Ministry he was responsible for the overall co-ordination of the negotiation process and for the Czech Republic’s preparations for Union membership. He has been Ambassador to the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Before that, he worked in Brussels for the Czech Republic Mission to the EU. In the Netherlands, he also represented the Czech Republic as its Permanent Representative to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, and was the first Czech elected as Chairperson of its Executive Council for a one-year period. The Ambassador also has experience working in the private sector through his consulting business and in his role as President of the Czech Republic – Netherlands Mutual Chamber of Commerce. Petr Kubernát completed his post as Ambassador to the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg in December 2019 and returned to Prague.
Mr Ambassador: we are meeting shortly after your return from five years in Luxembourg. The phenomenon of returning from abroad within a career interests me greatly. From my own experience, in both the civil service and corporate world, I know that while employees make preparations for departures, hardly ever prepare for their return. What is it like to return home after so many years?
Departures and returns are closely connected to the somewhat itinerant lifestyle of a diplomat. I myself feel that it is a good idea and useful for diplomats to return home after a period working abroad and settle at the so-called Headquarters before any further departure abroad. There are of course times when one goes from one assignment to the next, but this is exceptional and occurs only when absolutely necessary. The situation is always changing, within domestic politics, in society in general and, last but not least, also here at the Ministry. So it’s good to be able to refresh not just your knowledge, but also your contacts, to pick up new information and impulses. This also applies to family life, as we can stay with our wider family and deepen relationships with our friends. I agree with you that the return may not necessarily be simple. One can feel somewhat out of place, and miss one’s previous lifestyle or working tempo. I don’t mean the car with the flag, because personally I enjoy taking trams and buses. I often walked or cycled in Luxembourg and The Hague, and I even used an electric bike in Luxembourg. Luxembourg is quite a hilly city and from 2018 they introduced the option of using electric bikes there. My return involves not just the end of my mission and saying goodbye, but also packing and moving. The return to Headquarters is another chapter. We don’t usually return to a specific position, but rather we have a transition period of a few months in a temporary post, which gives us the time to decide on our further focus.
How does the end of a mission play out from the ambassador’s perspective?
Usually one officially says goodbye to the leading representatives of the country of your assignment. I held a final audience with the head of state, Grand Duke Henri, said goodbye to the President of the Chamber of Deputies, F. Etgen, and Prime Minister X. Bettel and Foreign Minister J. Asselborn organised a goodbye lunch for me. These meetings also serve to evaluate the current status of bilateral relations and also to review my own period in Luxembourg. I was pleased at how positive their response was. The Embassy also has to be transferred to the acting head, and of course I need to say goodbye to colleagues, compatriots and friends.
As a general rule, upon one’s return a roundtable is held to discuss the particular teritory, at which the outgoing and incoming ambassadors meet to evaluate the course and outcome of the mission alongside other participants. The incoming ambassador also presents his own concept of how he will be working, and priorities and areas of focus are discussed. This is of benefit to all those taking part in terms of reflection, maintaining continuity and being informed. For readers, I would note that according to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, outgoing and incoming ambassadors should never meet within the country they are working, which is why this meeting is held in Czernin Palace (Foreign Ministry Headquarters). After having completed a number of other administrative tasks, I am currently thinking about my next post, and this will of course depend also on the Ministry’s needs. I can offer experience in bilateral as well as in multilateral diplomacy, the process of European integration, and I have also experienced two EU presidencies in the countries to which I have been posted. There is now a recruitment procedure for all positions, both abroad and at Headquarters, with internal selection processes taking place. Only if a position is not occupied by an internal candidate is the vacancy opened up to external candidates.
Do you miss Luxembourg?
Not yet. I’m in contact with my former colleagues, my friends and compatriots in particular. There is a large compatriot community in Luxembourg, and we did a great deal of work together. They are compatriots who see themselves as modern migrants, and so the term “ex-pats” is often used for them, a term I don’t particularly like. Many of these compatriots came to Luxembourg to work following the European Union’s expansion, and they work in institutions in Luxembourg, whether these be the European Investment Bank, the EU Court of Justice or the European Court of Auditors. It may surprise many to know, however, that only a minority of Czechs are employed by EU institutions. The majority work in the private sector, in multinational companies headquartered in Luxembourg, within branches such as IT, finance and banking. It is evident that Czechs really are smart, able to succeed in the world, and can find their place in the sun. We’re talking about almost two thousand Czechs who work in Luxembourg. The Czech community is very active. The “Divadlo v Luxu” drama club arranges theatrical productions which it performs in various languages, so the performances aren’t just for Czechs and Slovaks. There is also a children’s folk dance and song club called Melimelo, made up of children of Czech, Slovak and Luxembourg origin, and there is a weekend Czech school which is working well. Another interesting aspect of the community is that lots of entities co-operate in Luxembourg on the basis of the former Czechoslovak Federation. In fact, that’s where the name of our association itself comes from, which has the abbreviation ATSL, meaning the Association of Friends of Czechs and Slovaks in Luxembourg. In 2018 we planted a Czech – Slovak linden tree of friendship dedicated to the Luxembourg capital on the occasion of the anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s founding. With all these contacts, any forlorn feelings from my return have not yet really sunk in. Luxembourg isn’t far, and my friends are already planning visits to Prague.
Staying with Luxembourg, Luxembourg is beautiful; I was there during a working trip when I was at the Diplomatic Academy. I get the feeling, though, that Luxembourg is not entirely appreciated by Czech tourists. Plus the country is very expensive.
It’s true they have a high standard of living, so it is an expensive destination. As I said, many people living in Luxembourg have a high income, not just within EU institutions, with 150 foreign banks there as well as many branches of large multinational corporations. Prices are thus high. Housing and rents are very expensive. Many people who work in Luxembourg live in neighbouring countries: in Germany, France or Belgium. The population of Luxembourg balloons every day with the addition of 200 000 cross-border commuters. Furthermore, apartments are expensive and so are not really accessible. Demand outstrips supply, and quality is poor.
But let’s go back to travelling in Luxembourg. It’s true that the size of the country doesn’t allow for a week’s planned holiday. Many tourists come for one or two days on their way to Belgium or France. I’d definitely recommend visiting the capital, Luxembourg City, which has many Czech connections. There’s Jan Palach Square, with Luxembourgers amongst the first to name a square after Jan Palach, doing so in 1969, initially illegally. Our shared forefather, John of Bohemia (also known as John I of Luxembourg or John the Blind) is buried in the crypt of Luxembourg’s largest cathedral, the Notre-Dame Cathedral. Behind the Grand Ducal Palace is a statue of John of Nepomuk. There are also streets named after Prague and Charles, and there is even a school named after Charles IV. One of our compatriots, Mr. Klouda, who is over 80 years old, has been giving tours for many years. He told me about these connections. I hope another will be added this year when a street will be named after our former president, Václav Havel. Last year, I gave a tour for tourists of Czech connections as part of the Ministry for Tourism and Local Development’s “Guide for 1 Day” project. Our walk ended in the embassy’s gardens with a tasting of cool Plzeň beer. The tourists were satisfied. And I must mention another tradition set up by John of Bohemia. This is the annual funfair, or the Schueberfouer, which began in 1340. The original market, which aimed to promote Luxembourg and its products to buyers travelling between France and Italy, gradually transformed itself into the largest entertainment attraction in the country.
The Moselle River, forming the border between Luxembourg and Germany, flows through a beautiful valley, but furthermore there are renowned vineyards on either side. Moselle, predominantly white wine, is a well known phenomenon. Crémant, a kind of sparkling wine using the same method as for Champagne, is produced in this region, although since it is not from the Champagne region it bears a different name. Near the City of Luxembourg is the mediaeval castle of Bourglinster, which is also used for state events. This also has a Czech connection in the form of two tapestries by academic painter and Czech compatriot, Ota Nalezínek, who lives next to the castle and celebrates his 90th birthday this year. In the north is the famous Vianden Castle, which is very similar to Karlštejn. A craft festival is held there every year, with Czech artisans also taking part. The castle also marks the beginning of the Ardennes with its beautiful forests and lakes. Anyone who loves the countryside should come here after visiting the capital and the Moselle. In a relatively short period of time, you can visit the entire country and get an idea of its diversity. I’m glad that a regular direct flight has been restored between Luxembourg and Prague, operated by Luxair. There are four flights a week in the summer season. When I used to fly to the Czech Republic, it would take me two and a half hours from the doors of the embassy to arrive home in Prague.
Let’s move on from visiting Luxembourg to return to diplomacy. You’ve worked in countries which were founding members of the European Union. Upon your return, have you begun to perceive Czechs’ fairly critical perspective on the EU? And we’re meeting in early February, so how do you perceive this post-Brexit period?
I follow the news, read the newspapers and of course I perceive public opinion. I do notice a certain shift in the perception of the EU, but there is no fundamental change. In terms of Brexit, the Czech and Luxembourg approach is the same. We regret the fact that the United Kingdom is leaving the EU. I still think about what has happened, and what the departure has led to. It is still hard to believe that the UK has left. I don’t think the departure of one country will lead to a domino effect. The period of preparation for departure was so long that it is unlikely other countries will follow the UK. Brexit will undoubtedly have a negative impact on both the UK and the EU! It is important now to negotiate the best possible agreement on our future mutual relations. The Czech Republic has lost an ally in many areas, and this will be a challenge for our diplomats too. In regard to further European integration, I am no sceptic, but rather am pragmatic. I held such a position even when we were joining the Union.
We must of course look at where we are going next. And investigate all the options. Decision-making at the EU level is not always the only option, nor the best. Might it be time to return decision-making in some areas back to the national level? Let’s begin posing these questions and discussing them openly. The EU project has arrived at a new phase in its further development. At the end of the day, the principle of subsidiarity is one of the EU’s core principles. And the fact that the EU has operated in a particular way up to now does not mean that change is impossible. Furthermore, the young generation is more critical in its approach to the EU, and this may further shift the European integration project.