One would think, with the British people’s decision to leave the European Union, that British ambassador Kirsty Hayes’ four-year tenure in Lisbon would have been dominated solely by Brexit.
In large measure, it has been. From midway into her tenure, Kirsty Hayes has had to be rather like a hospital casualty department doctor. Deluged with anxious family members after the road traffic accident that Brexit has proved so far to be in the UK, her bedside manner has been remarkable, if not astonishing. Bravo!
But while the fallout from the surprise result of the June 2016 referendum has dominated much of her time, Kirsty Hayes and her team managed to not only secure a great deal for UK citizens living in Portugal but also achieved an enormous amount on the business front, helping Portuguese companies set up or expand in the UK and UK companies set up in Portugal.
Calming the British
Following Brexit, there were myriad concerns from the estimated 40,000-strong UK community living in Portugal, many concentrated in the Algarve, which is why a series of “surgeries” - an apt term given the circumstances - were held up and down the country to allay fears and field questions from the British community in Portugal.
“We reached a really good agreement in December on citizens rights. It’s very broad and covers most of the areas which I know that British citizens here are concerned about: their right to stay in Portugal, to receive and upgrade their pensions and to access public services such as healthcare.
“The December agreement provides assurances that people can live their lives as they did before. The Portuguese government really values our community here. In fact, they want to encourage more to come. They recognise that the British make a very important contribution, not just to Portugal’s economy, but also to the cultural and social life of the country,” she says.
Explaining to the Portuguese
But it wasn’t just the Brits who had concerns that needed remedying. Questions also came from the Portuguese, and exalted ones at that. Questions that went right to the heart of Portugal’s seat of democracy — the Portuguese Parliament. Not once, not twice, but six times was Kirsty Hayes invited to address the Portuguese cross-party parliamentary EU Affairs Committee to explain the latest state-of-play on Brexit which can’t have been easy given that most UK ministers, let alone MPs, often didn’t know themselves what to expect. But that challenge, too, was deftly and diplomatically dealt with.
“Most of them were about Brexit. There had only been one or two times when previous ambassadors went to the Assembleia da República. I’ve actually been there six times: the first, on the Scottish referendum; the rest about our referendum and Brexit,” says Kirsty Hayes.
“They were really interesting sessions, but what was most interesting for me was to see the amount of consensus and continuity across the political parties on the issue. I have been very grateful and touched by the words from Portuguese government figures. The meetings showed that whilst the government was very sad and regretted we were leaving, they really wanted a constructive negotiation and close relationship with the UK after our exit. I hear that position echoed across all political parties.”
But business leaders, too, were concerned and had questions. “One of the first things I did was to call our Portuguese business partners in the UK, but they were very calm about the situation and signalled an intent to continue to invest in the UK,” she says.
Kirsty Hayes also stressed the “incredible relationship from government to government level” and the importance of the “two really important communities in our respective countries”.
“It’s important that we don’t take each other for granted, and that is why our government is so serious about investing in a bilateral relationship with our EU partners like Portugal. From a business point of view, it was very important that we managed to agree a period of implementation, because March 2019 (Brexit date) is coming fast upon us, and though good progress has been made in the negotiation process, there are still areas where we don’t have certainty, and I think this implementation period gives time to businesses and individuals to plan and adapt for the future,” says the ambassador.
Landscapes overland and underwater
But given all this work over Brexit, you would wonder if Kirsty Hayes had much time left for anything else?
“I travelled to many of the Azores Islands and went scuba diving, I tried my best to negotiate the famous Portuguese cobbled streets (calçada), which isn’t always easy, and I walked to the bars and restaurants at LX Factory in the evenings to relax and indulge in my passion for seafood, which I just love!” she says.
The British ambassador also had the chance to travel the length and breadth of the country. “I love Portugal’s diversity and the fact that you can jump in a car and, within a couple of hours, be in a completely different landscape,” says Kirsty Hayes.
And there is one thing the ambassador is sure of: “I’ve had a wonderful welcome from the Portuguese people and government and enjoyed getting to know the British community in Portugal. Despite Brexit, Britain’s special relationship with Portugal will endure,” she concludes.
By CHRIS GRAEME
Photo by: Chris Graeme