Checking in with the ambassador in Rome, why Japan is looking to Latin America and the art of the ambassadorial Christmas card.
In the spacious office of Jill Morris, Britain’s ambassador to Rome since 2016, the UK’s impending departure from the EU has none of its often confusing ambiguity. “It doesn’t worry me at all,” says Morris, the first woman to take this post. “We want a deep and special partnership with the EU.”
In September, to the bewilderment of many, UK prime minister Theresa May chose Florence to make an important statement of intent. Italy, the eurozone’s third-largest economy, origin of about 600,000 expats in the UK and home to many thousands of long-term British residents, has had its ears pricked up ever since.
The ambassador is careful to point out that the negotiations are being handled centrally and directly with Brussels. But a gear change at the embassy, which occupies a 1968 brutalist architectural gem designed by Sir Basil Spence, is palpable. “We are turbo-charging our bilateral work,” says Morris. She highlights recent statements confirming UK-Italy co-operation on tackling terrorism, as well as a bilateral summit on scientific research. There’s plenty to keep this mission, which has over 150 staff and is the UK’s third-largest EU outpost, suitably occupied.
Is Brexit having a negative impact on brand UK in Italy? “I don’t want to underplay that there is uncertainty and worry,” she says. But Morris has not been shy to employ some of the more glamorous soft-power tools at her disposal: she hosted a five-day Vivienne Westwood sale at the palatial residence, the Villa Wolkonsky, even modelling dresses herself. The ambassador also delivers the majority of her speeches in Italian, with none of the anglicised bumbling of some of her compatriots.
“I like to bring myself to the role,” says Morris, and underlines the deep cultural ties between Italy and the UK, with British academies and institutions in Rome, Florence and Venice. “I’ve discovered what tremendous affection Italians have for the UK. For many of them, Londra è come una seconda casa [London is like a second home].”
And despite the concern about Brexit, the ambassador notes that life goes on: Italian investment in the UK has increased over the past year and Italians still want to travel there to pursue careers and study. When pushed on her views on the prospect of a so-called “no deal” with the EU, Morris remains adamant. “I continue to be optimistic about future relations. But we have to plan for every scenario; contingency planning is part of any sensible government or business.”
In pushing trade, fashion, language and culture, the ambassador has undeniable energy – something she will need in buckets as Brexit grinds on. Yet she is remarkably sanguine about future UK-EU relations. “I see us being not just a good neighbour but a best friend.”
Ah, the embassy Christmas card: a surprising amount of thought can – and should – go into these little folded flaps of diplomacy. To find out what our ambassadorial neighbours and friends were popping into the post this year, monocle’s researchers had a ring around London’s diplomatic quarters at the start of November 2017 and the responses were telling. The Americans were far too busy for our questions about Christmas cards and we couldn’t get the Greeks on the phone in time. The Swiss, on the other hand, were putting a reliably erudite little tableau to print featuring a drawing by the late author Friedrich Dürrenmatt.
Over at the Brazilian embassy, Maria Clotilde Simigaglia, the ambassador’s secretary, is also the in-house illustrator for each year’s Crimbo card. Last year she sketched the ambassador’s residence and the chancellery in a not-so-festive but no-less-fetching charcoal drawing (the embassy has opted for sleek monochrome cards since 2008). “We write ‘Merry Christmas and a happy New Year’ for the Christians and ‘Season’s Greetings’ for other religions,” says Simigaglia. “We send cards to the people that are very close to Brazil. And then after that it’s an exchange: if we receive, we send.”
Meanwhile down at the Swedish embassy – close to our London HQ – the Christmas card is an opportunity to add a little twinkle to whatever might be on the agenda at the diplomatic outpost. Want to push Sweden as a place for last-minute Christmas hols? Stick a skier on the cover. We were a bit surprised to discover that the design-savvy Swedes don’t opt for a more creative choice of paper stock from year to year but we do like the regular event they host for the UK foreign office. A Swedish Lucia choir puts a little cheer into British diplomats’ hearts and Swedish buns in their bellies – and it’s a tradition that was immortalised on the cover of the embassy Christmas card for 2015.
Japan is anxious to promote trade links in Latin America – partly to counter growing Chinese influence there – and is upping its investment across the region. Prime minister Shinzo Abe tripled Japanese funds dedicated to infrastructure investment last year for the period through to 2020.
Delegations from Tokyo are already eyeing regional opportunities, says Keiko Tanaka, Japan’s ambassador to Uruguay. “Japanese investment to the region during my appointment has been gradually building.” Japanese car-maker Nissan will open a manufacturing plant in 2018 in the Argentine state of Córdoba and Japanese beef-industry experts are heading to Uruguay as tasty Uruguayan cuts are starting to make their way onto Japanese dinner tables.
With six decades of foreign policy experience, Jaakko Iloniemi is one of Finland’s most influential diplomats and has been the country’s ambassador to the US and the UN.
Why hasn’t Finland joined Nato yet?
During the Cold War, Finland succeeded by remaining neutral and this historic legacy still affects its thinking. Finland also believes that its defence forces, which are based on universal male conscription, serve as a substantial deterrent.
How do you see the future between Russia and the West?
I don’t see a conflict in the foreseeable future; Russia’s resources are not sufficient to counter the power of the West. That said, Russia does interfere in western democracies’ domestic politics.
What will the EU’s role be on the world stage?
At present the EU is in a weak and uncertain state. It is beset by internal strife both in terms of Brexit and members such as Poland and Hungary that deliberately break its rules. On the other hand, the EU is often strongest when challenged.
Finland celebrated its centenary as an independent nation in 2017. What challenges lie ahead?
Finland’s future depends on two key factors: Russia and the EU. I personally am not concerned about Russia and don’t see it evolving into a threat to Finland. As for Europe, much depends on how its common defence and security policy shapes up. Finland is already looking for regional alliances and is deepening its defence co-operation with Sweden.