Your Excellency, you have been the British ambassador in Romania since 2014, starting with just a few months before the election of a new president here. And there were turbulent times afterwards, with four or more governments in three years, with significant changes in the public agenda and sentiments, with huge street protests and significant tensions which at times seemed to put politicians against most of Romania’s external partners and their representatives here. How would you describe the country you discovered in these past three or four years?
I’m delighted to be here. I thoroughly enjoyed my time here in Romania, as I met Romanian people traveling around the country and I have been greeted everywhere with huge warmth. I think Romania offers a wide range of opportunities, it has some of the fastest growth rates anywhere in the EU, it has wonderful human capital, qualified young people with first rate language skills, and one of the fastest broadband speeds in Europe, a really interesting geographical location, a real bridge between the EU and environments further to the East.
There are some challenges, too. When I speak with British investors here in Romania, one of the key concerns that they always raise is around the rapidly changing legislation and rules. I think business predictability is a really important factor. Corruption, I think Romania has made really important strives since joining the EU in 2007. The latest report of cooperation and verification mechanism which was just issued this week makes it clear that there is still some work to be done in this area. And there is another one, which is the fact that Romania’s infrastructure, especially roads and rail infrastructure, is falling short of those in many parts of Europe.
Do you believe that this label of “emerging country” is still a valid descriptor for Romania?
I think labels are inevitably always something of a caricature, but we certainly use this “emerging Europe” description to refer to the range of Central European markets with a higher growth rate than those found across EU as a whole. We use it with a good connotation as a means of promoting this region, to encourage investors to think about the region; there are challenges, too, but there are a lot of opportunities.
Are you satisfied with the British economic presence in Romania at the moment? Is this presence near the potential of the economic relationships the two countries might have?
Bilateral trade is worth about 4 billion euro per year, and I am delighted of a growth of around 6.6% in the first 8 months of the year. We are doing a lot to promote its further growth. For example, the British Romanian Chamber of Commerce has opened its first offices outside Bucharest; it has now a branch in Cluj and another branch in Timisoara. This reflects the fact that the UK is interested in developing businesses in Romania as a whole, not just here in Bucharest.
In 2015, you honoured us with a speech in the opening of the energynomics Awards Gala. Thank you again for this and for a very competent approach on the industry! What is your grasp, now, on the Romanian energy sector and its current trends?
I think in many ways, although there are a lot of differences, the energy mix here is not so dissimilar to the one in UK. Both countries are characterized by the historic importance of coal, but obviously that is declining. In both countries, there are offshore hydrocarbons, a commitment to nuclear as part of the overall energy mix, a strong interest in renewables.
Looking forwards, I think Romania faces some challenges to confront. Of course, it is a growing country, as we’ve emphasized, the GDP is growing, expectations are growing, so an increase in overall energy demand. That needs to be confronted with challenges around aging infrastructure pretty much in all energy sectors including area like district heating. A challenge, too, is around building regional connectivity as a part of EU.
All of these are areas where the UK is very well placed to support Romania’s ambitions, and we are very keen to do so. That is why it is important to ensure a predictable environment for investors, but there’s certainly enthusiasm among the British businesses to help support Romania in its energy goals.
Such a powerful country in terms of energy, UK seems very far away from Romania, further away than even the geography would suggest. What are the energy sectors where British expertise and technology might prove to be useful in Romania?
I think UK has something to offer pretty much across the board. I only give a few examples: in the nuclear industry, the UK has no specific reactor type, but we offer strength across the board in working with all sorts of different reactors. It is a historically well-developed industry in the UK, as we developed the first commercial reactor 60 years ago. There are very exciting newly built reactors all the way, we have companies of strength in just about any area. So, whether Romania is looking for a new built like the Cernavodă 3 and 4 reactors, or for life extension like Cernavodă 1 or 2, or whether it’s around waste management or decommissioning, the UK has a lot to offer.
The British legal and fiscal framework for oil & gas (O & G) is one of the most flexible in the world, and in this respect, it might be an example for Romania, which is for so many years looking for the right balance between the state take and the economic constraints the investors feel. You also have a good experience in Central Asia, another region where O & G plays an important role. How do you see Romania playing its natural resources card?
I would certainly identify oil & gas as another area of UK strength and I think we can support Romania. The potential here lies in the development of offshore hydrocarbons, particularly gas, and the UK has a huge array of expertise in the way we develop the resources of the North Sea and also in the exploitation of mature onshore fields. What is really important in developing these challenging propositions is to make sure that the legal and regulatory framework is such as to interest investors. Of course, any state must protect its interests. But bearing in mind that hydrocarbon prices have been very low, I think to convince investors at all you have to be able to present a kind of clear, predictable and convincing offer that will allow companies to invest.
Have you seen such things in Romania recently?
I think, certainly I have not been seeing a huge level of companies coming into the sector.
Some fear that Romania might slide away from the European Union (‘s values), bewitched by some illiberal ideologies, by fear, or by some short term advantages. At the same time, UK is closer day by day to the moment of the official exit from the EU. What does the Brexit means in terms of EU’s values? What does it mean in terms of institutional compatibility between companies from the both sides of the Channel?
The referendum held in June 2016 was a very clear democratic vote with a very high turnout. The majority voted to leave the EU and that is what we are doing. Our Prime Minister Theresa May has made clear that leaving the EU means leaving the single market and the jurisdiction of the EU Court of Justice. But we are not leaving Europe, we remain an European country and close to our friends in Europe.
We want to develop a deep and special partnership with Romania and other European partners. What that means, for example, is that we are looking to build a future relationship which involves free and frictionless trade. All our values remain exactly the same.
Still, do you see some potential problems in terms of institutional relationship with companies, or local authorities after the Brexit?
I think with goodwill, we will look to develop our ties. I was in Constanta last week and I was giving a talk about the Danube to Black Sea railway which was built between 1857-1860 with British investment. The railway helped secure the exports of grain from Romanian lands and also had the effect of the developing the Port of Constanta which before the railway had been a small village. Our relationship was close and mutually productive in the 1850s, it remained productive many times since then, and will continue just as close and mutually productive many years from now.