British ambassador reflects on “endless series of crises” during five-year tenure

 In Bi-lateral trade, Diplomacy, News

The British ambassador to Portugal Chris Sainty ended his five-year tenure in December and recounted the trials and tribulations of Brexit and Covid-19 that severely tested the world’s oldest uninterrupted alliance.

Text and Photos: Chris Graeme

Reflecting on his five years as the British ambassador to Lisbon, Chris Sainty admitted business had been “anything but normal” in a farewell Lisbon lunch hosted by the British-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce (BPCC) on December 6.

It had felt, he said, “like we had been living through an endless series of crises” often running concurrently, putting all kind of “stresses and strains” and testing the Anglo-Portuguese relationship to the limit, while putting pressure on the BPCC, the British Embassy, and the Department of Trade & Business Portugal.

Brexit – a hard landing

Arriving in Lisbon in the autumn of 2018, and presenting his credentials to President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa on October 1, Chris Sainty recalled the friendly but inevitable discussion about Brexit.

“Brexit almost dominated every conversation I had in Portugal in my first two years; the negotiations with Brussels, the implications for our citizens in each other’s countries, and the impact on business and investment.”

The ambassador admitted that it hadn’t been easy, because “we didn’t know at that point where Brexit was going to take us”.

There had been a heated political debate in the British parliament on questions such as ‘hard’ Brexit or ‘soft’ Brexit, customs unions, the single market, and free trade agreements.

“Many here in Portugal continued to hope that the UK would change its mind; that there would be a second referendum, and the whole thing would go away”.

“It didn’t go away, and Brexit had a profound effect on the relationship between the UK and our European neighbours, including Portugal,” he recalled.

Chris Sainty recounted one of his first meetings as ambassador with senior officials at the Portuguese foreign ministry, and shared with them a framework document setting out how the UK and Portugal could work together after leaving the EU, and what shared priorities should look like.

“I suggested that we should put the negotiations between London and Brussels one side, and instead focus on building a strong bi-lateral relationship. However, the clear message from the Portuguese side was Brexit needed to be done first,” he said.

It was the essential message that all the UK ambassadors around Europe were given by respective EU member state governments singing from the same Brussels hymn sheet.

“It was a quite frustrating couple of years, in which it felt like many of the things we wanted to do in Portugal were put on hold, opportunities went by, and the things we could do were not done with the same level of engagement and support from the Portuguese government as we would have liked,” he lamented.

Covid – a pernicious affect on tourism

But just as light appeared at the end of a “long and painful” Brexit process, Covid-19 appeared and brought two years of “unprecedented disruption” with the ambassador himself testing positive for Covid-19 4 times.

“Everyone will have gone through this, and the difficulties and sometimes tragedies that it caused for our colleagues, friends, families, organisations, economies, and our countries,” the ambassador recalled.

Covid had had a “particularly pernicious affect” on the relationship between the UK and Portugal because of the way the two countries tried to restrict movement between the two.

“Portugal’s economy is highly dependent on the tourism sector, and the UK is the largest source of foreign tourists visiting Portugal, while in the Algarve thousands of businesses depend on their survival on that flow of visitors from the UK”, he said.

“Anything that makes it difficult for Brits to come here is bad news for the Portuguese economy, and those decisions to restrict travel on both sides for quite a lengthy period were taken for the right reasons in trying to protect public health and save lives, but because of the times we were living through were sometimes misinterpreted, and seen as politically motivated, which led to some very difficult moments between the two countries, and as ambassador it was not always a comfortable experience,” he recalled.

On the positive side, the ambassador said that here had been a lot more collaboration between the chamber and the embassy than before his arrival. “At the end of the day we share the same goals of promoting and strengthening the trading relationship between the UK and Portugal”.

Chris Sainty pointed out the organisation and co-hosting of great events such as the two ‘Future of Cities summits’ in Porto and Lisbon, and a Fintech round table event in Porto, which had been an “interesting exploration of the opportunities and challenges” that Portugal faced in that sector.

Resilience through challenging and sad times

The President of the BPCC, Rui Almeida, said he firmly believed that Chris Sainty had played a “significant role in fortifying the ties between the chamber, the embassy, and the Department for Business and Trade”.

“We hold this relationship in high regard as it allows us to collaboratively contribute to the promotion of trade and investment between the UK and Portugal, fostering the cohesion necessary for economic ties and cultural relations on both ends. In doing so, we are better equipped to assist companies to engage in such trade and investment activities by providing access to essential services, guidance, and further their business endeavours. Indeed, to pursue our core mission as a bilateral chamber of commerce”.

Rui Almeida stressed that the past five years have been “extremely defying” in face of unprecedented challenges but that Chris Sainty had demonstrated “exceptional leadership” during Brexit, navigating with grace and diplomacy through uncharted waters. “His unwavering commitment to maintaining strong ties between our nations during this pivotal period has been commendable”.

This resilience displayed by the ambassador also encompassed the challenging times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And in moments of profound sorrow, particularly with the passing of Her Majesty the Queen, Chris Sainty had provided a “steady hand and heartfelt support to all the British community in Portugal and indeed to all of us who loved Queen Elizabeth II.  We were then all able to together celebrate the coronation of the new King”, he said.

And added: “Let us celebrate the joyous occasions that marked Chris Sainty’s tenure, notably the splendid occasion of the 650 years of alliance between our two nations. Through these festivities, Chris honoured our shared history, but also laid the groundwork for a future characterised by strengthened collaboration and mutual understanding”.

“In recognising Chris Sainty’s exceptional service, we express our deepest gratitude. His legacy of diplomacy, marked by resilience, compassion, and a steadfast dedication to the bilateral relations between Britain and Portugal, will be remembered fondly”, he added.

Becoming a Sporting fan

Philip Lowndes-Marques, Chairman of the AGM of the BPCC and partner in Law firm Morais Leitão also provided some insight on how the ambassador brought closer cooperation between the embassy and the BPCC.

“I’ve been involved with the chamber for many years and historically it seemed like the chamber and the embassy were a cross-purposes, and instead of working together, each on seemed to be doing its own thing”.

But he had said that under Chris Sainty there had been “progress” with the relationship between the two having “never been better”.

In terms of the British Historical Society, Chris Sainty had been a strong supporter, attending the events, which had “not always been the case” with past ambassadors.

He joked that it was “my fault he became a Sporting Football Club supporter”, but on behalf of the BPCC and British and Portuguese communities thanked the ambassador for his five-year tenure and wished him all he best for the future.

Photo: L-R: BPCC President, Rui Almeida, Teresa Patrício (Deputy Chair of the BPCC Board of Directors – Lisbon), and British Ambassador to Portugal, Chris Sainty.