Interview: UK Ambassador on life in Estonia after Brexit

The United Kingdom's Ambassador to Estonia, Theresa Bubbear, with Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas.
The United Kingdom's Ambassador to Estonia, Theresa Bubbear, with Estonian Prime Minister Jüri Ratas. Source: Jürgen Randma

When Theresa Bubbear took up the mantle of British Ambassador to Estonia, the eighth since the restoration of independence in 1991, any expectations of this being a quiet stint in a placid country nestling in the northeastern Baltic would've been almost immediately dispelled by the two events which have dominated her office: The arrival of hundreds of British troops forming the core of the NATO battlegroup in Estonia, and of course Brexit.

ERR News caught up with Theresa on Brexit day itself, January 31 2020, so there was an obvious place to start. But was this day it a case of confident continuity or cataclysmic change?

"It's funny isn't it it's been coming so long. I woke up this morning and thought: 'It's just January 31' and it took me a while to realize this is it. I wished my FCO boss a 'happy Brexit day'; after a long pause, all he could say was: 'I don't know how to respond to that!' It's very difficult to know what to do, so I'm just treating it as a normal Friday."

"I'd been doing a 'dry January' so there were other good reasons for me to be cheerful today. At the same time it's as good a time as any. Like the Grand Old Duke of York we really have been up and down the hill again. There were three times that happened on withdrawal date just last year."

"It's been incremental steps. The withdrawal agreement being signed in Brussels the other day almost went under the radar. But that happened, and it's time to move forward to the next stage."

How has Brexit day impacted UK-Estonian relations, and what has been going on in the embassy here in the days leading up to it?

"I went to see the [Estonian] prime minister yesterday, I've have seen people at the Riigikogu, and the foreign affairs ministry, other places, and the messages are without exception, absolutely ones of eternal friendship, solidarity and support."

But that must be partly because of the British-led NATO Enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) group here, as well as also British involvement in the Estonian War of Independence still being fresh in the mind, as the centenary was only last year?

"I think even without the NATO battlegroup and the historical connection, the relationship would still have been close and warm anyway."

"But yes, we can point to 850 pairs of boots, plus all the hardware, tanks, helicopters, ships etc. which say: 'This is how much we value this relationship are prepared to commit to it'. These are tangible things which cement the relationship together. I rarely go to a meeting with Estonian ministers or senior officials where they don't thank me for the troops – even three years in. It's felt very keenly, and acknowledged very warmly, everywhere that I go."

Of course, plenty of U.K. politicians and other dignitaries have visited Estonia during your time as ambassador, including Boris Johnson, just before Christmas. That must be a good sign?

"International relations and diplomacy has got to be two-way. If it's a one-way street, it won't get very deep ever or last very long. We can see it's two-way in the case of Britain and Estonia."

"Boris Johnson was here as foreign secretary during Estonia's EU presidency in 2017, then came here as prime minister, just before Christmas."

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson served soldiers their lunch at the Tapa base back in December. Source: Sergei Stepanov/ERR

"There was a neat symmetry. When he became prime minister in August, his first visit from a foreign leader was [Estonian Prime Minister] Jüri Ratas - which was actually a pure coincidence, albeit a fantastic one for us. After the December general election, Boris Johnson made Estonia his first foreign visit. Any ambassador would be happy with that story – it's a great story to tell, and I know that the Estonian prime minister is really happy with it too.

"Generally, I've seen no hint of any change to our obligations towards international organizations post-Brexit. On the contrary in fact - we want to stress we're still here, we haven't gone anywhere, we still care about the same things we cared about before. Being or not being in the EU doesn't impact any of that."

But what about your background, and prior connection to Estonia. I heard it runs deep, and dates back a long time before you became ambassador?

"I had a brief connection, yes. I was a student at Leningrad University in 1982, studying the Russian language for a semester – funnily enough the deputy ambassador, Alison, did the same course the following year. My first visit to Tallinn was in November of that year."

"Naturally, if you'd told me then that one day I'd be British ambassador to Estonia – on every level it would have seemed utterly impossible. Estonia wasn't an independent country for one thing. I also didn't realize then that women, or that people who did not have independent means even, could be ambassadors. I shared the same stereotype, still sadly alive and well today, that you had to be a rich man in a three-piece suit with a double-barelled name to make it as an ambassador."

"So I often think if only I'd known! But my memories are so happy of that time; getting off the train at the Balti Jaam train station here and instantly realizing that: This is Europe, not the Soviet Union.

"There were about a dozen of us on the trip, kept under a very close watch by our Russian teachers, who were very nervous. As we walked round the old town, we had people realizing that, although our Russian was very good, that we were from elsewhere, and they wanted to speak English with us".

"I've got photos of me paddling in the Baltic up in Pirita, photos of the Niguliste church after it had had a fire, leaving the spire almost at 90 degrees. It made a really strong impression, but obviously not any inkling that I'd ever be coming back again."

When you did return, was it as ambassador?

"No. I used to come back quite frequently when I was posted to Helsinki in the late 1990s with my three daughters, who were quite small at the time. They liked to play princesses in the tower, on the city walls!"

How did you get the job – was it a question of being in pole position, having had the background and connection with Estonia?

"FCO jobs, including Ambassadorial ones, are advertised internally. If you're the right grade and available at the right time, you can apply. It's a fairly standard process, so it's absolutely not a question of being sent there just because you 'know Estonia'."

"I would guess, though, that having a bit of prior knowledge and real enthusiasm for the place helped in my application. But that doesn't always hold good. The process is very transparent. Some people do get disgruntled if they don't get a posting they applied for where they know the local language etc. but there ends up being a more suitable candidate."

"Before I took the job I was acting ambassador for a year in Budapest, so I got to practice with a team I'd already worked with four years, who had no qualms about giving direct feedback if things weren't working or I got something wrong. So it wasn't as much of a shock as it might have been, coming here."

And after you'd arrived here?

"The world looks different when you've got your own team. There's a moment I'm sure every ambassador has where they look around and it dawns on them, well this is me and my team now. The only point I remember feeling apprehensive was when I came over on the ferry from Stockholm and saw Tallinn appearing on the horizon and realized, this is it; the moment I step off this boat I am her Majesty's ambassador. There's nothing not to love about Estonia, I have a great team who put right things if they do go wrong, so all the snapshots in my mind are of positive moments."

How do you deal with having to maintain diplomacy, in every sense of the word, when you have a strong opinion on any particular topic, be it things which are happening here in Estonia, or in the UK?

"I'm glad to be asked about that! Essentially I'm an observer, both in my own country and here, so it's absolutely not my duty, responsibility, or business, to get involved in politics. My role is to translate things. Estonia very much does not need my personal gloss on what is happening in the UK, though in the case of London, I do have to put my own gloss on why things are happening, or what things mean, to give them a full picture."

Jüri Ratas was the first foreign leader to visit Boris Johnson at Number 10, after the latter became prime minister last August. Photo taken on 6 August 2019. Source: SWNS/Scanpix

"It's not been a problem having to bite my tongue. I'm not a political animal, and to be honest I'm glad now that I'm not politically inclined that way. Politics is absolutely fascinating, of course, but I don't have any skin in the game, as it were. Naturally, I have opinions on virtually everything, the same as anyone does, but they're not relevant. My job in a nutshell is to represent the government of the day within the terms of the law. I've been doing the 35 years now, so don't have any issues with that side of things."

We talked about the NATO battlegroup earlier. This has been one of areas which has dominated your time as ambassador. What is the battlegroup's raison d'etre, and why is it important?

"You can look at the eFP through all sorts of prisms, but for me the most important one always has been its visibility. We're here, we're standing side-by-side not only just with Estonia, but with the rest of NATO."

"It's absolutely not a bilateral deployment even though it tells a lot of great bilateral stories. I'm sure those messages are seen, understood and interpreted by anyone who is interested. There's nothing secret about it, it does what it says on the tin."

"The eFP battlegroup was designed to both be absolutely ready to defend if necessary, but also to deter. As always with the military anywhere, success is really when nothing happens, which seems quite hard to manage and motivate towards in some way – you'll have done your job if nothing happens, but that is what it's about."

Why Estonia, and not Latvia, Lithuania or Poland? Was there a lot of lobbying for the Estonian eFP to be British-led?

"When the concept and framework first emerged, I don't know whether we said: 'Please can we have Estonia' or the Estonians said 'please can we have the Brits' - I suspect a bit of both. Having worked with the Estonians in Afghanistan, we knew that we could work with them we wanted to be here, so I'm quite sure it was a mutual agreement that this would work well. It wasn't by accident, in short."

"The amount of money the Estonians have spent on the Tapa facilities, on top of their 2 percent NATO contribution, is staggering, and very much appreciated. The costs have been borne absolutely willingly, and with a smile."

King's Royal Hussars (KRH) armored regiment personnel at Tapa. The KRH formed the kernel of the eFP through much of 2019, and have been replaced by the Queen's Royal Hussars. Source: Jürgen Randma

It's a British-led battlegroup, but it's not only Brits serving in it. How do the other countries fit in?

"The eFP is overall under Estonian command - the 1st Brigade of the Estonian Defence Forces. As well as us, there's been troops from France and Denmark, and the Belgians were involved last year."

"Whereas Denmark and France rotate as a whole, our individuals rotate, but it's always the U.K. core of the group that is here."

"Don't forget the air base at Ämari. We had the RAF there as part of NATO air policing duties – separate from the eFP, and for the last two summers we've also had two rotations from the Army Air Corps. I got to ride in a helicopter – a Wildcat – flying back from Ämari to Tallinn. While I'm not a massive fan of helicopters, it all went very smoothly. They sent an Apache alongside, which made for great pictures through the helicopter's open door for the photos!"

What are some of the changes that the eFP has brought to Estonia, particularly to the small town of Tapa where it is based?

"I took the president around last year when 1 YORKS (1st Battalion of the Yorkshire Regiment-ed.) were here, so she had to get to grips with different accents. That's important though - fixing the radios well is not much use if you can't understand what the person at the other end is saying, but both the Estonians and the other allies have got very good at that."

"Tapa base has grown massively. The first time I went over there, in early 2017 before the bulk of the troops arrived, there were just a few huts and a lot of cranes. Last year, as the Queen's Royal Hussars were arriving, I was shown round this brand, spanking new medical facility, which was absolutely fantastic. The medic thought it strange to walk in to what was very much like a state-of-the-art private hospital, but with kit more like what you'd have in a tent. Anything needed beyond that would be provided at the hospital in Rakvere or Tallinn, so they were managing expectations around this fantastic new facility, which we're very grateful for."

Going back to the strong relationship between Britain and Estonia, what are some of the side-effects of having the eFP here?

"I like it when I see guys out and about in uniform in town, and I admire the way the British armed forces scoped it very carefully when they arrived. They didn't just dump 850 extra people on top of this small town. The previous commander said they checked out what time the schools finished, time of church services etc., to avoid having a lot of old ladies coming out of church and suddenly being presented with a battalion of troops marching down the road. I thought that was very nicely done. "

"Then there's outreach. They've done leadership training for teenagers round the country, and helped them with English via language cafes and conversation classes. They've even been involved in renovating, painting and other jobs. They've given guided tours and had static display days, with lots of kids clambering around typhoons and helicopters and tanks etc."

"This is very much what we wanted – a situation where it's perfectly normal to have British guys in camouflage walking down the street. It's not a threat, they're just there."

But there have been many rounds of defense cuts in the U.K. in recent years. How can the eFP be justified in that light, as well as its future guaranteed?

"I don't get to see the MoD's costs of course. I don't know what our commitment in terms of pounds, shillings and pence is, but the point is we have an absolute obligation to NATO and vice versa."

"The battlegroup's soldiers were already in the army. They'd be somewhere else if not here in Estonia – in Norway and Canada on exercise obviously Afghanistan and so on, so the basic costs are already covered. The focus is the commitment and the solidarity rather than costs."

"I haven't met the new defense secretary yet (Ben Wallace-ed.), but I hope he'll come and visit, and of course I'll talk to him about all of that side of things if he does come."

"It's not just British troops being sent off to learn how to dig snow holes here, it's very much about our NATO contribution, and after midnight tonight when we're no longer in the EU, nothing changes. We're still here, and still sitting with Estonia on the UN security council."

And how well known and well-supported is the eFP back home in Britain?

"Two then-defence secretaries, Michael Fallon and Gavin Williamson, have been here, the armed forces minister, Mark Lancaster, has been twice during my time, and as we said, the prime minister came, specifically to see the troops just before Christmas. These visits all give me a great opportunity, even just during the hour-long drive to Tapa, to have their ear, as there's so much to talk about."

"We've also had three royal visits in recent years, and I hope there will be more. Every army regiment has an honorary colonel, and most or all of those are from the royal family."

"The royal family members who have been here and visited troops were surprisingly diligent about wanting to come out and see their guys. Both Princess Anne and the Countess of Wessex when they came out showed that they really want to come and see the troops, it's not just for show."

Theresa Bubbear with Prime Minister Jüri Ratas and Lt. Col. Gus Tilney of the KRH at Tapa last year. Source: Jürgen Randma

What about the future of the eFP, is it here to stay, and will it grow in size at all?

"We're committed as long as we're needed, according to the U.K. prime minister. Whereas at the beginning it was a five or ten-year commitment, I've now heard the British premier tell Jüri Ratas twice that the eFP timescale is open ended, as long as they need us."

"I'm not aware of any imminent growth in the size of the eFP – which it not to say it won't grow at all – but we've had all kinds of changes and additions. For instance the NATO press secretary is the sole representative from Iceland. I'm certain we'd work just as well with nations other than the existing partner countries, but it really helps keeping things simple, to avoid having to go back over the most basic things, like radios talking to each other, or what happens when tank goes in a bog. Since these have been answered already we can focus on other things."

You visit a lot of schools throughout Estonia, forging links, showcasing Britain and so on. How are you received?

"There's nothing as challenging as a school hall full of 14-year-olds! I always promise to answer any questions, honestly, with the possible exceptions of film and football, which I know nothing about!"

"I've not been asked anything too awkward so far, though some of the questions are very challenging – questions from Russian-speaking schoolchildren about NATO and the eFP for instance – and I do my utmost to answer them as openly as I can. Any teenager might see through you if you tried to fob them off or weren't wholly truthful."

And what about the English language? Are you impressed with Estonian school children's level?

"I've had teachers tell me that their students speak English better than they do – with all the immersion that comes from the internet and so on, so even though the teachers might have learned very correctly, the kids are still up-to-the-minute. That is massively impressive and was the case even in some of the smaller places that we visited with the pop-up embassies in 2018."

What are some of the other take-homes from seeing the famed Estonian education system in action, up close?

"I've learned a lot about leadership from schools and head teachers. You can tell, as soon as you meet a head teacher – this works for mayors too – what sort of place it is, is it energetic and outward looking, or is it merely dutiful."

"Look sat the PISA scores, they speak for themselves. The prime minister told me that when [education minister] Mailis Reps was in London a couple of weeks ago for the Education World Forum she felt almost like a rock star, as everyone wanted to ask her about the secret of Estonian education."

"I think there are some things we could learn in the U.K. – this is not an interview about education so we won't go into them – but for many years we've been asking Finland the same questions, and I think many of those answers apply here in Estonia too."

"Another striking thing is how comfortable schoolchildren seem to be with the teacher; it seems to be very relaxed, with a natural and easy relationship, places where it safe to challenge, to speak up – still respectful, and when the teacher tells them to be quiet, they will be. It feels easier than might be the case in British schools – though I haven't visited very many British schools in recent times."

As a woman ambassador, do you visit the schools with presenting yourself as a role model for girls in particular?

"I'm not the first woman ambassador to Estonia; Sarah Squire, in the early 2000s, was actually the first British woman ambassador who had children – ever. There are lots of places which still even today have not got there – we've just had our first woman ambassador to Moscow; none yet in Paris, Berlin or Washington, so the glass ceiling still exists."

"There's an element of role modeling. As I said I have three daughters myself, so I'm really conscious of the duty to keep fighting and showing the way. I do sessions mentoring with teenage girls here, answering the questions: 'Can I have it all, i.e. children and a career?' and similar. Noone has all the answers, but it's still very helpful."

"I did a session with the president in Narva where we were asked about juggling parenthood and job, and we could say, look, here we are. When you're 16 or 17 things can look really terrifying. But you rely on support and, sadly, even in the 21st century, on people not judging you, as well as somewhat on luck etc."

What about the embassy itself, do you also present it to schoolchildren as a potential future employer?

"One of the things that surprises people when I go to schools is that two thirds of the embassy staff are Estonian. I like to point out that you can work for an embassy, you don't have to be an Estonian diplomat – every embassy in town has Estonians staff who work there."

Speaking of diplomacy, let's go back to Brexit again. The transition period starts today. How is that likely to pan out for the rest of this year?

"The U.K. prime minister has insisted that the transition period is set in stone for the rest of this year. As to next, the short answer is, nothing much visibly, but there will be a lot of pedaling frantically behind the scenes. Noone would pretend it's anything other than an ambitious timetable, but I think we've come to learn our prime minister likes that putting a deadline on something and challenging people to meet it."

"And I think it's true – if you say, 'by the middle of next year', you immediately take all the urgency away. I learned professionally a long time ago that you must always give people a deadline, or things just evaporate."

What about how Brexit and the transition period has affected Estonia – how have the Estonian authorities dealt with it?

"At first, there was a mixture of not quite believing it and wishing it wasn't true, but once they'd grasped that it really was happening, and things needed doing; there's nowhere quite like Estonia for getting things done, once they know what those things are. The last piece of legislation passed by the previous government was aimed at securing the position of British nationals. I don't think we could have asked for any more, and my journey has been a lot smoother than most of my colleagues around the EU."

"We don't have any major bilateral issues, like the hundreds of thousands of pensioners on the Costa in Spain, or the massive business interests, or fishing, or anything like that which is turning controversial in other places. I think it was always going to be simpler here, but it wasn't a given that it was going to be as painless as it has been."

Do you have any advice for some of the hundreds, or more, UK citizens living in Estonia, particularly those who have arrived more recently, and also those who might arrive during the transition period and beyond?

"The latest figure shows just under 1,500 U.K. nationals registered living here. If you are a new arrival in particular, or arrive during and after the transitional period, I'd say get your paperwork in order, register, get your ID document. The Estonian authorities will take care of you, but you still need to make absolutely sure they know who you are, that you have registered, and have all your documents up to date."

Your stint as ambassador is gradually drawing to a close. What will be some of the take-homes from your time here?

"Yes, I will be leaving in Spring next year, 2021. My own job is definitely sought after by my colleagues at the moment, and is being advertised ahead of when I finish, so there will be no issues with filling it."

I have simply so many snapshots in my mind of meeting mayors and others all over the place, and how happy people were to see us, at the pop-up embassies where we had tea parties. There were some amazing people we didn't know were here. British ballet dancers, Brits making soap on Saaremaa, 'the Brit who lives in the forest' near Jõgeva', and others."

One of the highlights of Tallinn's social calendar is undoubtedly the annual Queen's Birthday Party reception held at the ambassadorial residence. The picture is from the 2019 event. Source: Ken Mürk/ERR

"I love the way things work here, smoothly, automatically like Bolt, or the self-service supermarkets. I don't even have to drive anywhere – the bus stops right outside my house and ends at Viru."

You catch the bus in Tallinn?

"I get the bus all the time! Not to come to work - the embassy car is at the residence anyway - but for everything else. Public transport runs when it says they will, and it is literally door to door by bus for me to the center, and is a nice journey along the coast."

And other memories?

"One strong memory is watching royalty talking to soldiers. It's a massive privilege to be there but is also quite humbling. Same thing with the president – seeing a 19-year-old guy from Yorkshire showing President Kaljulaid, kneeling down at the time, how you make tea out of melted snow. Moments like that, you can't buy them and they're very touching, not to mention special."

"Traveling in a tank behind Princess Anne when she was here; this was absolutely surreal – if I didn't have the photos, I don't think I could believe that these things were happening."

"An opera festival in Kuressaare, which was magical; presenting my credentials to President Ilves and realizing how tall he is; going to Number 10 three times with Jüri Ratas to see the prime minister – Theresa May twice, and then Boris Johnson."

Theresa Bubbear and Jüri Ratas on the balcony at the Stenbock House, seat of the Estonian government. Source: Jürgen Randma

"The thing I'll miss above all else is the people. I can't take my team with me. Four or more years is a long time to build up a team, so it's almost like handing over a baby, you want to make sure they go to a good home."

"I remember staying places like Saaremaa and Hiiumaa after the pop-up embassies had finished for the day, and just sitting with my team. Those moments when noone's on duty; you get to sit with the people you might not always get to during the normal working day, are things you have to earn, I firmly believe. Royal visits will come anyway, whether you're a nice person or a good ambassador or not; if they're coming, they're coming."

"I've got some amazing colleagues both in, and outside – such at the foreign ministry or the prime minister's office – and inside the embassy, and I'll be really sad to lose those people. "

"I remember sitting in a restaurant in Narva with the president when she based herself there for a couple of weeks last year, and looking over her shoulder at Ivangorod, across the river, and again, taking me back to my younger self. If you had told me the world was going to change in the way it has – I just would not have believed it."


For more on the NATO eFP Battlegroup, see the interviews ERR News did with them last year, here and here. For more Brexit advice for U.K. nationals, see here.

The U.K.'s ambassadors to Estonia following the 1991 restoration of independence have been:

  • Brian Low (1991-1994).
  • Charles de Chassiron (1994-1997).
  • Timothy Craddock (1997-2000).
  • Sarah Squire (2000-2003).
  • Nigel Haywood (2003-2007).
  • Peter Carter (2007-2012).
  • Chris Holtby (2012-2016).
  • Theresa Bubbear (2016-present).

Editor: Andrew Whyte

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