Woman on a mission
As Marie Chatardová takes over the helm at the Czech Embassy, she thinks back to the journey of the little girl in communist Czechoslovakia who dreamt of life in the West and is now the first female Czech Ambassador to the UK
Marie Chatardová has lived a life of two halves. Growing up in the picturesque border town of Znojmo in Moravia, closer to Vienna than Prague, Marie Chatardova always wondered what life was like in the West. Following the Velvet Revolution in 1989, she adapted quickly, doors opened for her and a diplomatic career beckoned.
Chatardova seized the opportunity, spending much of her early career preparing a path for the Czech Republic to join the European Union, followed by ambassadorial postings in Sweden, France and most recently as Permanent Representative of the Czech Republic to the United Nations in New York, cities she could only dream of visiting as a child.
Now taking up her post as the first female Czech Ambassador to the UK on the eve of the Czech presidency of the EU, she talks about re-casting the relationship between kindred nations in post-Brexit Britain, the importance of female role models in diplomacy and science and a curious collection of blue bunnies…
You have seen so many changes in your life – what was it like growing up in Czechoslovakia, witnessing the fall of communism and the velvet divorce? How did it affect your view?
My life is basically divided into two periods: before November 1989, meaning before the Velvet Revolution, and after. I remember when I was little and going with my parents on a trip to a hill called Pálava, from which you could see Austria in the distance. Then I dreamed for a long time about what it might look like ‘there’ because traveling to Western Europe was just a dream for me. After November 1989, everything was different, but of course not immediately simple. We had to learn a lot, so to speak, but Czechoslovakia was one of the richest countries in the world between the two world wars, with a developed industry, so we had something to build on.
I assume you mean by ‘velvet divorce’ the division of Czechoslovakia. In fact, it can be called that. We have excellent relations with Slovakia. While the fall of communism affected my life fundamentally, the division of Czechoslovakia did not. It did not bring and does not bring any tension; no hostility and we have always had excellent cooperation with all our Slovak colleagues.
Has it always been a desire to be a diplomat? What made you go to the State Department?
I believe that if you want to work in diplomacy, you must be able to identify yourself with the country you represent. Therefore, before the fall of communism, it never occurred to me to go into diplomacy. They probably wouldn’t even have accepted me. Anyway, I never applied for it.
In fact, even after November 1989, I did not initially consider diplomacy, I tried to learn quickly what I could not really learn before or did not have the motivation for, especially foreign languages. And then someone happened to tell me that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is organizing a competition for open positions. I was wondering what it might look like at the Ministry, so I tried and succeeded.
You are the first Czech woman ambassador in London. You now have three grown children, but does being a female diplomat still require some work-life juggling?
Among young diplomats, there are about as many women as men, but with increasing age, men predominate. It is difficult to balance the lives of both of you in a couple, and even more so when one works in diplomacy. Especially if you have lived for several years in one country, then in your capital, then in another country and you can never tell your partner, for example, in ten years, where we will be. I think this is the main reason why there are so few women ambassadors, although fortunately, we are no longer a rare species.
My husband has decided to accompany me on all my diplomatic postings. As for the children, with moving to another country comes also a change of school, or even a change of the main language of education. It’s challenging, but our children have adapted quickly and now speak several languages fluently. So it is a matter of finding compromises and, in the case of a family, that everyone is able to see more positive than negative aspects, although such a change can be difficult, especially for adolescents. We managed it together and I am grateful to my loved ones.
Why do you think it is important to have more women in diplomacy?
Women are said to have more empathy, a better ability to prevent conflicts. There is some truth to this, but it is very individual. What is certain, however, is that women have excellent preconditions for this job and there should be more of them in diplomacy. I believe that successful women can serve as inspiration to others that it works.
You served in New York prior to this posting and in France. On both occasions, you held roles that focused on science and technology and the importance of science diplomacy. Is this an area of interest for you and is it something you’d like to pursue here in the UK?
Of course. Czech-British cooperation in science is very active and both our countries have ambitions to become great powers in science, new technologies and innovation. The pandemic has further shown how important this area is.
I would like to return to your previous question: not only in diplomacy but also in science, there are not enough women at higher positions. I have seen figures showing that women hold only 11 percent of senior research positions in Europe and that the proportion of women researchers worldwide is about one-third. Here, too, I see the main problem in overcoming stereotypes in society and creating the right conditions for women to combine their careers with their families when they decide to do so.
The EU has also figured prominently in your career. You were part of the team working on the difficult and all-consuming process of EU accession, you were also Director of Protocol during the first Czech Presidency of the EU in 2009 and your postings have been to EU countries, France and Sweden. Can you tell us a bit about your experiences and why was joining the Euro-Atlantic club so important to the newly independent Czech Republic?
Immediately after the Velvet Revolution, our goal became to return to where we belonged with our values before the occupation. And NATO and the EU have met those values. When I stood at NATO Headquarters and saw our flag flying on the flagpole after we became members, tears welled up in my eyes. Pictures of my childhood and youth ran through my head, such as the one when I looked down the hill to Austria and thought I would never get there… Moments like this help me a lot in my life.
Every time I start to be in a bad mood because something is not going as I would like; I say to myself that I have no right to be in a bad mood. After all, I can represent a country I am proud of, I can travel freely, I can work. I would never have dreamed about it 40 years ago. When I realise this, it’s a guaranteed cure!
In July the Czech Republic assumes the Presidency after France. Although nowadays presidencies are mostly managed from Brussels, they are still a chance for the country holding the Presidency to focus on issues that have priority in their country or region. So how will the Czech Republic put its unique stamp on the upcoming Presidency?
You are right that this year’s presidency will be somewhat different from that in 2009, but there is still a lot of work ahead of the country holding the presidency, especially in terms of progress in negotiating European legislation and, for example, the ‘Fit for 55’ legislative package [the EU’s plan for a green transition, committing to cutting emissions by at least 55% by 2030] may turn for the most part to us.
At the same time, each presidency sets out its specific themes beyond current events and the EU’s agenda, which it wants to take further. For us, such a topic can be, for example, cyber security. Our new government is working hard to fine-tune the presidency’s priorities and we will introduce them soon.
The Czech Presidency will take place hopefully as the world emerges from the covid pandemic and we learn to live with the virus. How do you think your country and the EU responded to this health crisis and are there any lessons to be learned as we move into a recovery phase?
The Covid pandemic hit the world unprepared for a similar situation. Over time, we have learned from the covid experience and we can now draw lessons from it on how to deal with future potential health crises better at both the national and EU level. The crucial lesson learned is that no one can prevent or face a pandemic in complete isolation.
The Union must now focus on two key aspects that will also be crucial for the Czech Presidency: firstly, strengthening the post-pandemic economic and social recovery; and secondly strengthening cooperation on health issues. Prevention is also essential. I think we should look at the pandemic, despite all the negative things it has brought and continues to bring as the challenge of “build better and more sustainable”.
Britain and the Czech Republic have long ties and have been natural allies. How will you add value to what is already a very good bilateral relationship?
Yes, we have excellent bilateral relations, but there is still room for making them even deeper. A more detailed description of all our ideas would probably take up an entire issue of your magazine, so I will limit myself to mentioning two projects:
I would like to present the Czech Republic in all parts of the UK. That is why we are preparing Czech Days, during which we will present our culture, business cooperation opportunities, our cuisine, beer, wine and tourist destinations. Last year, Time Out magazine, based in London, selected Prague as the most beautiful city in the world.
The second project is called ‘Children of Heroes’ and its aim is to map the fate of the families of our soldiers who fought in Britain during World War II and then stayed here. Exactly as stated in your question: our relations have a long tradition, which fundamentally includes the heroism of our pilots and soldiers in the Battle of Britain and beyond.
Brexit meant the Czech Republic lost a like-minded ally within the EU. How will you be recasting your bilateral ties now that Britain is no longer in the EU?
The United Kingdom remains one of our key partners, especially in the areas of trade, investment, defence, and security. Youth mobility and cooperation in education, science, and research and innovation are certainly among the important common themes. Both the Czech Republic and the UK have always been part of a like-minded group in the EU that supported a liberal approach to international trade. That has not changed; for the Czech Republic as an open export economy, liberal trade is fundamental. The UK is also an open economy, based on innovation and services.
We are united by a common history, a sense of humor, a love of football and beer. Many British tourists visit Prague, but also other places in the Czech Republic.
In terms of bilateral trade and investment with the UK, can you outline what opportunities you envisage, post-Brexit?
The UK is traditionally one of the most important trading partners for the Czech Republic, and our exports have doubled in 20 years. The UK is one of the top five investors in the Czech Republic, but at the same time, Czech investments in the UK, are rising, for example, in the energy sector. The company EPH owns five power plants in the UK, one of which has already been converted to low carbon, the other is under construction.
Other promising sectors for Czech companies in the UK include energy, transport, infrastructure construction, healthcare, digital solutions and ICT, the defence sector, and agriculture (food, technology). The market is very demanding and highly competitive, but Czech products and solutions have a good reputation, there are still many opportunities.
What areas do you think UK and Czech businesses are a good fit?
As I said, the Czech Republic is a country with a strong industrial tradition, we have excellent technical universities and at the same time companies that can produce innovative solutions. I already listed the areas above but the list cannot be exhaustive. All areas are possible if you are better than other competitors.
The UK recently hosted COP26 – which included a commitment to phasing out coal. How can the Czech Republic and the UK work together to reduce reliance on fossil fuels and manage challenging energy transition to get to net-zero?
Compared to the UK, the Czech Republic is more dependent on coal and due to geographical conditions, the transition to renewable energy sources is more difficult than in some other countries. The Czech Republic sees nuclear as a necessary part of energy transformation and as a clean energy source. In this area, we cooperate with the UK, for example the Rolls Royce consortium and the Czech ČEZ.
The State Energy Concept is currently being revised; risk mitigation for industry, which accounts for 33% of GDP, is important for us. Climate change is a global problem and cannot be tackled alone, there is a need to work together and share best practices. It is exactly what we are doing.
You have a large and successful Czech diaspora in the UK. Is connecting with them and assisting them in the post-Brexit era a priority?
Yes, it is one of our priorities. The Czechs in the UK are for the most part very successful, we have well-known doctors, architects, and scientists. According to available data, the second largest Czech scientific community in the world (after the USA) operates in Great Britain.
As of July, this year, 73,000 Czech citizens applied for settlement status as a resident after Brexit. The structure of the community has undergone significant changes since 1989 and since its accession to the EU. In addition to the traditional waves of immigration after 1948 and 1968, a significant proportion is now students. The place of greatest concentration is the Greater London area, where more than half of our citizens live in Britain. Other places are large industrial centers (Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds, Northeast England, Edinburgh, Glasgow).
Our other project called CZEXPATS Interviews, which we launched last year, is also dedicated to the Czech diaspora in the United Kingdom. Through the means of video interviews, we are introducing successful Czechs living in Britain.
The Czech Republic is well known for its culture and creative industries – what can we look forward to in terms of cultural exchange? Do you have any plans for a cultural programme during your Presidency?
If you mean culture and cultural exchange by the term creative industry, then I agree with you that we have something to offer in this area. Our main goal is to support cultural exchange between the Czech Republic and the United Kingdom, and in London, we even have a Czech Cultural Center for this purpose, which is very involved in this area.
The structure of the programs we are putting together is generally based on three thematic pillars:
- Sustainable development and human rights
- science, technology, and innovation
- art and creativity
This year, in cooperation with the Czech Center, we are preparing a number of events, for example, Art Comics / Art for Street, the Innovation for Sustainable Development exhibition, Václav Havel’s European Dialogues, the Zátopek’s Run sports project [named after Czech triple Olympic gold medalist distance runner Emil Zátopek], the multi-genre festival Made in Prague and many other projects. There is something to look forward to and everyone can choose from the menu.
And finally…How do you like to relax?
I don’t have much free time and if I do, I’ll fill it in with something. I especially like walks in nature, sports, and travelling. I also like to read, but it is true that these are mostly books or articles that are somehow related to my work. I cannot forget to mention my collection of blue bunnies…
And it always makes me happy when we meet the whole family, or at least most of it, which is not as obvious and easy with three adult children, especially during the pandemic.
The editor interviewed the Ambassador for the Czech Republic on 4 March 2022