Britain in anticipation of the 2012 Olympic Games – An interview with Ambassador Simon Gerard McDonald

Britain in anticipation of the 2012 Olympic Games – An interview with Ambassador Simon Gerard McDonald

After the first of two major sports events of this summer came to an end last night, a great amount of international attention will now be given to London and Great Britain. The country’s capital will host the 2012 Olympic Games amidst economic challenges and questions about its future relationship with the EU. IFAIR is proudly co-publishing the following interview with H.E. Ambassador Simon Gerard McDonald, marking the rollout of our cooperation with the German Diplomatisches Magazin.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is not only the third most populous country in the EU with 60.2 million inhabitants, but also a highly developed industrial and nuclear power. Nevertheless, the largest archipelagic state in Europe is facing economic challenges which it needs to deal with in the long term. In an interview with Diplomatisches Magazin, Ambassador H.E. Simon Gerard McDonald spoke about the European integration, economic rehabilitation strategies and the Olympic Games.

Excellency, Britain is liberal, pluralistic and international. Last year’s royal wedding – Princess Kate is regarded as a style icon and Prince William as your country’s number one role model – and films like “The King’s Speech”, “The Queen” and “The Iron Lady” play a key part in defining Britain’s public image. Are traditional British values back in fashion?

The British film industry has long been one of the most successful in the world across all genres. But as an historian, I’m particularly pleased that films with historical themes have been doing so well in the cinemas lately.
As for the royal wedding, we celebrated with a large number of guests at the British Embassy, as befitted the occasion. Weddings in the royal family are always something special; they generate enthusiasm and a good mood. Not just in Great Britain, but also in Germany – and indeed throughout the world. The same also applies of course to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Over a thousand guests recently joined me and my wife Olivia to celebrate this occasion at the British residence.

Britain has been rather reticent about European integration so far. The euro was not introduced due to domestic resistance and the influence of Quantum Funds on the securities market. Britain has been in the headlines since December 2011 because the Prime Minister told his EU colleagues that he could not agree to the planned amendments to the EU Treaties. Are Europe and Britain drifting apart?

In reality there are many good reasons why Britain has not joined the euro, and the present government ruled out membership of the eurozone from the outset. Britain did not accede to the fiscal compact last December because we could not be guaranteed securities for the integrity of the single market which were quite crucial for us. Prime Minister Cameron has made it clear several times that Britain’s future lies in Europe and we are part of Europe. We are close partners and cooperate in several areas.

What is the reason for British dissatisfaction with Brussels in recent years?

As in Germany, Brussels often stands in Britain for over-regulation and excessive bureaucracy. Both countries therefore advocate fewer regulations and more efficiency. But high costs are also a cause of discontent. In a difficult economic environment, the EU budget has to reflect national austerity measures.

The British Prime Minister David Cameron has suffered a setback in the fight against the economic crisis. Britain has slipped into a recession again for the first time since 2009. What’s the reason for that? What long-term strategies are there for economic recovery?

As I said, the world is currently in a very difficult economic situation. Britain is
one of the countries hit particularly hard by the banking crisis. We have since introduced tougher financial regulations and are in the process of restructuring our economic model. The government is investing heavily in manufacturing and the export sector. But such structural changes take time.

There are currently 16 nuclear reactors in the United Kingdom, generating over a quarter of the country’s electricity. Whilst nuclear power plants are being switched off in some countries since Fukushima, eight new plants are planned in Britain by 2025. The UK is to become one of the leading manufacturing centres in the nuclear sector. What does that mean for your economy?

In order to achieve our ambitious climate targets, Britain is favouring low-carbon technologies for power generation. These include: renewable energy sources, coal and gas with CCS and nuclear energy. That the demand for electricity will rise sharply in the next few years is undisputed; we are assuming it could even double by 2050. Consequently, the British government also favours nuclear energy in order to keep the price for consumers and industry
as low as possible.

How strong is public support for this?

There is also a debate about nuclear power in Britain, but not to the same extent as in Germany. Public opinion is largely positive; the construction of new nuclear power plants is likely to create 30,000 new jobs by 2025.

At around 60 billion euros, Britain has the highest annual defence budget in Europe and is among the world’s leading military powers. Apart from the USA, no other country has more soldiers stationed abroad than the UK.

There are currently about 14,000 British soldiers on special overseas missions, such as in Afghanistan. 17,000 soldiers are also still stationed in Germany.

How big will the cutbacks be as a result of the austerity measures?

The British government wants to reduce the UK budget deficit by cutting public spending. The savings affect all areas, including the defence budget: by 2014/15, 8% has to be saved compared with 2010/11. Nevertheless, we shall achieve the NATO target of 2% of GDP for defence spending. The costs of peace missions are not met from the defence budget but from a separate reserve fund.

London will be the first city to host the Olympic Summer Games for a third time (after 1908 and 1948). The Paralympics then also begin in late August. There is great anticipation, but the Games also pose challenges. Environmental experts, for example, fear that London’s air quality will fall below standard. What environmental strategies have been developed?

That is news to me, and such fears are unfounded. On the contrary, the Olympic
and Paralympic Games will be the greenest and most environmentally friendly Games in history. We were selected to host the Games in Singapore back in 2005 mainly because we promised to plan and carry them out in a more sustainable way than ever before.
We shall honour this promise. We have also worked hard to ensure that London 2012 has a positive and environmentally friendly impact, a green legacy. Our key environmental strategy is the “London 2012 Sustainability Plan” which was first published in November 2007. The plan contains specific environmental targets, both for the construction process and for the conduct of the Games as well as the subsequent period. To give just one example: by using innovative technologies, water consumption in the Olympic Village will be 20% lower than average consumption in the rest of London. We have already transformed East London. It used to be one of the socially weakest areas in Britain, a disused and even contaminated former industrial site. We have transformed it into a green and lively district. The Olympic Park will be the new green centre of East London: covering an area of 246 hectares, it is larger than Berlin’s Tiergarten. In and around the Park, we have created eight kilometres of new waterways and restored the river Lea. After the Games we shall dismantle some of the structures that are no longer required – for example, large bridges – and replace them with lakes and rivers. 75% of the budget for the Olympic Park has been spent on regeneration projects. I can assure you that our environmental technology will set new standards for the organisation of major events. For the first time in the history of the Summer Games, we have developed and implemented a detailed analysis of the carbon footprint for the Games. The President of the International Olympic Committee, Jacques Rogges, visited us in London in March and praised our measures as a “legacy blueprint for future hosts”.

Compared with the original plans, the number of security staff for the Olympics has doubled to 23,500. A battleship will be stationed on the Thames for the duration of the Games and missile launchers will also be deployed. All of this will cost half a billion Pounds. Are there any indications of planned terrorist attacks? How secure are the Games?

Britain has extensive experience in the secure and reliable organisation of major events. We are well prepared and I am confident that we shall enjoy secure and fantastic Games. Our comprehensive security concept was pub lished in July 2009 and has been updated and revised in the meantime. Local residents and authorities have been involved in the process. Millions of foreign visitors and the inhabitants of London are expecting us to protect them. We must also guarantee the safety of about 120 Heads of State who will be visiting the city. Around 12,000 police and 13,500 members of the armed forces will be deployed during the Games. But the extent of these measures is no greater than for previous Games. The atmosphere of the Games as a gigantic sports festival will not be disturbed.

Major events like the Olympic Games not only boost the host country’s image but also bring economic benefits. However, a survey by the Olympic sponsor British Telecom shows that 93% of British companies are anticipating negative effects during the Olympic Games in London. Their criticism is levelled, among other things, at increased traffic congestion, falling staff productivity and the huge hike in hotel prices. Do the Olympics not bring economic benefits after all?

I have to contradict you here, because the Games are of enormous benefit for the whole country. They enhance our trade, our economic growth and inward investment. So far they have brought British companies contracts worth almost six billion Pounds. Since all the contracts for the Games are put out to international tender, thousands of international companies are also participating. Medium and long-term economic growth is one of the four objectives we have set ourselves for the Games. We are well on track. Even before the Games begin, construction of the sporting venues in the Olympic Park alone has created 44,000 jobs, and 25,000 unemployed people from across London have found work. For the duration of the Games we shall establish the “British Business Embassy” at Lancaster House in London where sponsors, companies, investors and future hosts of the Games can all meet and make contact. And we shall continue to profit from the Games after they have finished. Office space for more than 50,000 jobs has been created in the East London borough of Stratford. British companies will generate an additional one billion Pounds as a result of our “GREAT Britain” campaign. We are also expecting 4.6 million additional visitors to Britain over the next four years – they will spend over two billion Pounds and create 60,000 new jobs.

In 2011, the number of foreigners living in Britain passed the 7 million mark for the first time. The Prime Minister wanted to limit the number of new immigrants – more than 250,000 in 2011 – to 100,000 per year. This was intended as a measure to combat unemployment since the welfare state encouraged British people to leave their jobs which were then taken by migrants. Is that the correct way?

We are proud to be one of the most open economies and societies in the world. Talented skilled workers are most welcome in our country. However, immigration is also always dependent on the economic situation. We are paying more careful attention to who enters the UK. There has been abuse in the past, particularly in connection with student visas. In April 2011 we introduced an upper limit on the number of economic immigrants from third countries, which stands at 20,700 people per year. But this quota has not been exhausted in any single month since then. At the moment, companies are using less than half the available quota. Students from third countries can remain in Britain if they have a  job where they earn at least £ 20,000 per year. We also ensure that our labour market is open to foreign entrepreneurs and highly qualified skilled workers from sectors in demand.

The individual countries which comprise the United Kingdom, England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, each have their own football team. A British team which represents the whole UK will be competing once again at the 2012 Olympic Games. Will that quadruple your chances of winning?

That would be wonderful, but I’m not really sure it works like that! The British football team and the Olympic and Paralympic football tournaments are in any case a wonderful symbol for the unity of our Kingdom. The tournament will be held not only in London but also in Cardiff and at Glasgow’s Hampden Park Stadium, which has a rich tradition. This highlights the point that the Games are not just a London or English event but a British event!

Text: Diplomatisches Magazin, Beate Baldow