On 26 November, the University of Oxford’s German Society hosted an interview and Q&A session with Andreas Michaelis, Germany’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and former State Secretary to the German Foreign Office. Ambassador Michaelis spoke about his career as a professional diplomat, his time as a student at Oxford, the relationship between the UK and Germany, and how he envisaged Brexit might change this relationship.
Michaelis gave some insight into his previous diplomatic postings, including the time he spent as ambassador to Singapore between 2002 and 2006, and to Israel between 2011 and 2015. He noted the unbelievably rich character of life abroad as a professional representative of one’s home country and how fascinating the challenge was of figuring out what he could do to promote Germany’s interests.
Moving on to his current role as ambassador to the UK, which he has held only since May 2020, he described, with some understatement, that due to coronavirus and lockdowns it had not been quite what he expected. Nonetheless, Michaelis commented that he and his team were still working hard on negotiations ahead of the end of the UK’s Brexit transition phase.
On Brexit itself, Michaelis noted that areas of uncertainty still remained in terms of Britain’s relationship with Germany and the European Union. The future of established exchange programmes like Erasmus Plus and Horizon Europe was still up in the air, and it was unclear what impact the impending change in Britain’s status to that of a third party would have on this kind of cooperation. On a more personal note, Michaelis spoke of the pressures that life as a diplomat can exert on one's family. As a diplomat is never fully off-duty, and so it isn’t always easy to keep private and public life separate.
In the Q&A section, one of the first questions asked was, "to what extent do you see yourself, as German ambassador, as a representative of pan-European interests?". Michaelis responded enthusiastically that he very much sees himself as a representative of both Germany and Europe simultaneously, and that he felt this was implicit in his position as a representative of one of the EU’s major members. On the question of how Germans can integrate abroad, Mr Michaelis exhorted them to act as self-confident standard-bearers for their country and to do what they could to foster understanding and collaboration, be that in academia, culture, sport, or other avenues.
When asked what he feels to be Germany’s most pressing foreign policy challenges, he identified four areas for attention: the transatlantic relationship between Germany and the US; ensuring that the EU is empowered to do what is right for Europe; the need to develop stronger multilateral relationships with Asia; and environmental sustainability.
The Ambassador concluded with some advice for aspiring European diplomats. His first piece of advice was that language skills are very important. It is essential to learn the language of the country in which you are stationed. He also suggested that good command of English, French and German would be very beneficial to those wishing to engage in European politics. Secondly, be prepared to work hard, and for the occasional 18-hour day. And finally, when it comes to politics, don’t underestimate the value of creativity and imagination.