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Heads up – Embassy 32

Portrait of an Ambassador

Following Portugal’s new Ambassador to London, João de Vallera, down the stairs of the Embassy, past portrait after portrait of former ambassadors, leaves one in little doubt about the historic ties that bind Britain and Portugal stretching all the way back to the Treaty of Windsor 1386.

“I have big shoes to fill,” smiles the Ambassador, as he reels off the names of his illustrious predecessors, singling out the Marquis de Pombal, who as Prime Minister rebuilt Lisbon following the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 1755.

Now Ambassador de Vallera finds himself in London as Portugal faces a financial crisis, which recently led to the resignation of the Government.

“We are facing a difficult position, we can’t deny it,” admits the Ambassador, adding that the sovereign debt crisis has been very present in his first months in office.

The recent €78bn EU-IMF bailout agreement opened a new chapter in the process and, speaking on the eve the snap elections on 5 June, de Vallera says no matter what the stripe of government voted in, it will continue with “tough and responsible measures” to tackle the deficit while pursuing economic development-friendly structural reforms.

“We know what we have to do at national level, but this is a problem that goes beyond national borders,” adds the Ambassador. “it relates to the functioning of the Eurozone, the European Union and the wider international financial system, where important framework decisions are to be taken”.

De Vallera can speak with some authority on the subject. An economics graduate from the University of Lisbon, his career has had a recurring EU theme. He has spent a collective 15 years in the corridors of Brussels and, apart from his most recent posting in Washington – where he experienced the excitement of the last American presidential elections and the two first years of the Obama Administration – all of his postings have been in what he describes as the “EU belt”.

There have been stints in Bonn and Madrid as well as tours of duty as Ambassador in Dublin (1998-2001) at the height of the Peace Process; and Berlin (2002-07), where the Iraq war, a change from the Shroeder to Merkel administrations and the negotiations of the EU Constitutional Treaty and the EU financial perspectives occupied a big part of his time.

The intervening years at headquarters in Lisbon also had an EU focus, where he rose to Director General of European Affairs in 2001 and served, briefly, as Portugal’s delegate to the Convention on the Future of Europe, the precursor to the Lisbon Treaty.

And, despite the less enthusiastic mood that presently surrounds the European construction, he says it remains a win-win equation. “The success of its enlargement and the attraction it continues to exert on candidate countries clearly proves that.”

Indeed, the EU has brought many benefits to Portugal, which in turn has made a positive contribution to the European integration process and the EU’s wider relations.

“Our early embrace of globalization has given us accumulated knowledge and a basic predisposition for dialogue with different peoples, cultures and civilizations” says the Ambassador. “It is not by chance that the two first EU-Africa summits took place during Portuguese EU presidencies, nor that the first EU-Brazil Summit happened during our last presidency in 2007.”

In his office are several beautifully illustrated volumes showing 16th century Portuguese maps and hundreds of cultural objects from the voyages of discovery in Africa, the Americas and the East.

Maritime history is something both Britain and Portugal share – the statue outside the Embassy of Prince Henry the Navigator, the son of an English princess and a Portuguese king – is a reminder of that. And where Portugal sailed, Britain followed in its wake.

A tapestry in the Residence shows Catherine de Braganza arriving in London to marry Charles II, a wedding that reinforced the old Anglo-Portuguese Alliance but also had far-reaching geopolitical consequences, as it opened the way for the British presence in India.

“But we can’t sit back and rely on our historic relations,” says the Ambassador. “They need to be updated and developed, as, for instance, we are far from having exhausted the potential of our economic relationship. And a major financial centre like the City will certainly be interested in and able to benefit from a better knowledge on the long-term perspectives of the Portuguese economy”, says de Vallera.

He sees plenty of potential, from renewables and technology, to so-called ‘superfoods’ and tourism. A self-confessed oenophile, the Ambassador is especially looking forward to promoting fine Portuguese wines.

Academic ties are also important and he hopes to nurture and develop stronger links between top UK universities and Portuguese language, culture and science.

That will also give him a chance to indulge in his passion for travel, culture and photography – a hobby that has made him an accidental unofficial photographer of visiting Portuguese dignitaries.

And while there is some time before his own portrait appears at the top of the staircase at the Portguese Embassy, it is clear Ambassador de Vallera measures up to his famous predecessors.

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HE Mr João de Vallera

“We know what we have to do at a national level, but this debt crisis is a problem that goes beyond our borders. It relates to the functioning of the Eurozone, the EU and the wider international financial system”

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