Bridge builders

On the crowded mantelpiece of Portuguese Ambassador Manuel Lobo Antunes, a familiar face looks out. Pointing to the signed photo of Antonio Guterres, the Ambassador smiles broadly, delighted that his former Prime Minister and old friend has been elected UN Secretary General.

“He will be a fantastic Secretary General,” says Antunes, who was Guterres’s diplomatic adviser. “He has all the right qualities and experience. He is a bridge builder and the UN needs that.”

Antunes has done his share of bridge building in a long diplomatic career. A European expert, he has witnessed a tale of two Europes, at the best of times, and at the worst of times.

Best of times
His first taste of European diplomacy was in the best of times, as a Deputy Director General (later Director General) for European Affairs, during which he participated in the Convention of the Future of Europe in 2002. “It was a time of euphoria; there was no financial crisis and we were on the eve of a great enlargement to the east. The mood was one of great optimism,” he says.

The world of politics beckoned when he was appointed Secretary of State for National Defence followed by “an intense” stint as Secretary of State for European Affairs during Portugal’s Presidency of the EU where he was part of the team that negotiated and later signed the Lisbon Treaty.

Portugal was in the right place at the right time to broker the historic agreement. “People tend to trust us,” reflects the Ambassador. “Maybe it’s because we are a medium sized country, an old country that has survived for centuries, so negotiating is in our blood.”

Worst of times
But as the team toasted the agreement overlooking the Tagus, already the clouds of the financial crisis were gathering and when Antunes was posted to Brussels as EU Permanent Representative it was the worst of times. “We were on the brink,” admits the Ambassador, who recalls his team working 18-hour days to hammer out a bailout plan that would satisfy Portugal’s creditors and be accepted by the public back home.

“It was not easy but we got the bailout and the programme went as planned,” says the Ambassador. “Now we have growth, the deficit is under control, we have political stability and Europe is in a better position to face financial turbulence.”

A posting in Rome followed during which Italy and Europe faced a new crisis, that of an unprecedented flow of refugees and migrants. Yet despite these challenges, Ambassador Antunes took reassurance living in a great European city whose beauty and culture had endured the slings and arrows of history. “That is why it’s called the Eternal City,” he smiles.

Uncertain times
Now in London, it is not the best of times, nor the worst of times, but it is certainly uncertain times. “It is a very interesting juncture in our relations because of Brexit,” says the Ambassador who has been following each twist in this unfolding tale. But he has confidence in the British public administration which he describes as “a formidable machine”. A committed European, the Ambassador hopes for a deal that preserves European unity and prosperity.

While some European capitals are talking tough, the Ambassador’s approach is typically Portuguese: “It’s time to build bridges; we can’t help it as Portuguese, we are not confrontational. Let’s try to find the best deal out of this. We are all Europeans and we share the same fate and history and geography.”

The long line of ambassador portraits stretching up three flights of stairs in his Residence is testament to the long friendship Britain and Portugal share, dating back to 1373 and the Anglo-Portuguese Treaty (the oldest alliance in the world still in force).

And while the terms of the Brexit deal will be negotiated in Brussels, in London Antunes will concentrate on the areas where he can add value, enhancing cultural links, tourism and investment. But it is not only tourists who are charmed by Lisbon. Its suspension bridge, trams and hilly streets make it an old world San Francisco attracting an emerging tech scene. Cheap rents, sun and good universities make Portugal an increasingly popular destination for British students.

These people to people ties create an enduring cultural bridge between the two nations. While the Portuguese community in the UK is anxious to know their status once Britain leaves the EU, the Ambassador has been reassured by statements made by the government.

Free movement is a principle held dearly by the Portuguese, he adds. Joining the EU rekindled in the Portuguese its age-old impulse to discover, a trait embodied in Prince Henry the Navigator, the half-English Portuguese Prince whose statue gazes over the Embassy in Belgrave Square.

Good hopeIt reminds the Ambassador of his days as a young diplomat serving in Harare, when he took time out to visit the stormy seas at the Southern tip of Africa where the intrepid Portuguese voyagers had sailed.

“We called it the Cape of Good Hope. This is a distinctive feature of the Portuguese outlook,” smiles the Ambassador. “Despite stormy waters and difficult times, we always look to life with good hope.”

Embassy Editor Elizabeth Stewart interviewed the Portuguese Ambassador on 3 October