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Desert Island: New EU boss brings conversations, not lecturers

Every Monday, The Observer and Capital Radio are teaming up to bring to you excerpts from the Desert Island Discs programme. Today, Sunday, just a couple of hours ago, presenter Simon Kasyate hosted the new head of delegation of the European Union in Kampala.

Ambassador Kristian Schmidt presented his credentials to President Yoweri Museveni on Friday and now talks about his life, his work, and his first deployment in Africa – Uganda.

You have been here for barely a week; what is your impression of this country so far?

Oh, it a beautiful country! I feel the warmth of the people of Uganda. I feel almost immediately at home, just one week. The welcome has been warm. This is exactly what I expected when I decided to come here. So, it’s been a very good start.

How enthusiastic were you about being posted here as an ambassador, and of course your first deployment on the African continent in your diplomatic career.

It is my first deployment in Africa but it’s by far not my first visit to Africa. I have visited Uganda in the past and to be appointed, you have to apply. So, I applied wishing to be appointed to this posting.

This was certainly a personal choice and luckily it turned out that the High Representative of the European Union did consider me for this posting. So, I am here because I really wanted to take this post.

For the most part, many folk will imagine a European Union ambassador is one with the brief to come here and offer lectures on how this should be done against a set European standard template…

I don’t believe in giving lectures or lessons. I think Europe and Africa have a past history and if we learn together from that; we don’t even need to talk about lectures either way because history will teach us what worked and what didn’t work. I think what we need, and this is how I see my job, is dialogue with our African friends and partners.



What are your priority areas of intervention both individually and as the European Union?

The European Union is a political entity that is built on values, on principles... They are very much universal values. Values which countries like Uganda have also signed up to on human rights, on democracy and on basic freedoms.

And so the diplomatic mission of the European Union across the world pursues these values, but like I said, not by giving lectures, but by dialogue and common understanding.

If your outlook is anything to go by, you are a young man… You are certainly not going to spend all this energy dialoguing, and what do you intend to spend your energies on?

Well, Simon you may say I look young but your listeners will not necessarily believe it,[laughter] but thank you for the compliment. Well, it is my first posting to Africa, but it is not my first diplomatic posting and I spent thirteen (13) years working at a political level in Brussels, advising commissioners and vice presidents and so I bring that experience to Uganda.

Let us also remember that Uganda is a very young country; so, maybe a young ambassador is well placed to understand the challenges that the youth of Uganda are facing. And also in terms of experience, apart from meeting H.E the President this week, I have met Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, the Dalai Lama, so I have been around and met a number of interesting people before coming here.

I will spare asking you to rate our president with that list of personalities you have met previously, perhaps at the end of your posting. As is our tradition on Desert Island Discs, you choose your music, what will be your first song?

That’s a very easy question, Simon, I will start with Bob Marley’s One Love. Because I think that is a song that talks about tolerance, one love, let’s get together and feel alright and that’s how that song came to be a symbol of the whole island of Jamaica in a difficult period.

And now time to get to know you personally, who is Kristian Schmidt? When and where were you born?

Kristian is a third son of Danish parents. I was born on a summer day in the countryside of Denmark in 1967; so, I will leave you do the calculations on how old I am.

Growing up in rural Europe in the 60s, what kind of childhood did you have?

I think I had a very easy childhood. Because there was no internet, no television for the first ten years, certainly no computers. As a child, you have to use your imagination to be entertained. You couldn’t just seat yourself in front of a television or computer.

When I see my own children having all these luxuries, I sometimes feel sorry that they can’t just sit and play like I did when I grew up in the countryside. Alright there was a bit of a walk to the nearest bar, the nearest club or restaurant but then you [had] the time to use your imagination.

But well, televisions, computers, smart phones, etc are no more a luxury but a necessity for today’s children…

Well, with my children-and I have three- I try to find a balance. These [televisions, computers, etc] are a wonderful tool for discovering the world; all the knowledge you can gather from surfing, etc but you can’t go back though I sometimes feel I had a much simple childhood.

This childhood came with attaining an education and honing your career path of growth and development. Did you, as a child growing up, ever imagine yourself in diplomatic service?

I would say that choice was made when I was around 16 or 17 years, rather early but when you grow up in the Danish countryside, far away from everything, you get a longing to go places and see the world. And this is also the tradition of my country, we are a nation of folk that want to discover the world and jump on a ship and sail somewhere and discover new ports.

That sounds like a subtle description of a typical Viking…

Well, that is part of our tradition but we have become a lot more peaceful since the 10th century. So when I was 17, I went to study in France and that was the beginning of studying in five different countries in Europe.

Moving from European country to another every year and picking up diplomas from universities as I went along. That I think is what made me a European, in addition, of course, to being from Denmark.

How were you able to fit and blend into the different European cultures and languages in those countries you visited, for example France?

You just throw yourself into it. I was 17; I moved to France, I knew a little bit about the language. And two weeks into my stay in France I met a very nice school colleague from Senegal who was himself a foreigner. We perfectly understood that to learn French you need to be explained why you say things this way and not that way and so he was a perfect match for me to learn French.

So I would say I learnt French from an African and not from [the] French. I had a little bit of support from my parents when I left but the first couple of years as a student, and I am sure many listeners will recognize this, you leave home and it’s a little bit miserable.

You have to get by and many of my student years were more difficult because I chose to go abroad and study. It would have been a lot easier and comfortable to stay in Denmark and do my studies there but it was a very rich experience. Never mind the low material level, it was rich in culture.

Well, then what did you study in this tour to end up as an ambassador?

Well, when you end up as the only Danish student in a French high school, you have to answer a lot of questions about your country. You have to explain that we do not have polar bears in the streets of Copenhagen, the capital city of Denmark; that’s where you start.

So, finally you get to look back at your own culture and you get to realize that some things are not as simple and obvious in the eyes of others and you become a bridge, you become an interlocutor and you have to understand the country you are in but you also have to explain where you are coming from. Well, that’s a diplomat, isn’t it?

Without doubt, you may also wish to take us through a chronological journey of the other European capitals you went to and what diplomas you picked along the way.

I then decided to go to Italy. Italy has first of all a beautiful language, but the culture of course and the Roman culture behind the Italian culture has informed Europe’s entire heritage. And so being in Italy at the oldest University of Europe at Bologna founded in 1088 that is a place to visit. Excellent teachers in political science and international law; so, I really enjoyed a year in Italy and of course proved to be useful.

So, after here you started on a job?

No Italy was a step on the road, then I went to Paris and then eventually to Cambridge in the UK. That is where I finished and after seven years of study I was ready to do something useful and earn my money.

What was your first job?

I went directly to the Danish government administration and my first job was to attract foreign direct investments to Denmark in the ministry of Economics [and Business Affairs].

Quite interesting! Uganda is grappling with attracting credible foreign direct investors into her economy; how exactly did you pull this off?

Well, you have to receive and meet delegations of companies from around the world and you have to explain to them that the investment climate in your country is favourable, that the legislation is good for workers, social protection is there and that the company can concentrate on an honest business path that will be profitable. So, this was selling Denmark as an investment destination.

Uganda faces the bottleneck of attracting, for the most part, bogus investors; investors not really worth much. From your experience, how were you able to tell a serious investor from an unserious one?

Well, if you are looking for tax breaks and you are looking for a short-term stay in a country to exploit certain opportunities, that I would say is not the serious investments you are looking for. Obviously a serious investor is one who is there for the long haul, who will use local content.

Who will make sure that procurement also is local procurement, which workers are local workers that the region/district of the country they are in sees the benefit of the economic activity and doesn’t just see the national resources flow out of the country.

You need to be able to convince the neighbours of the business that there is something in it for them. Uganda is succeeding, in my view, in portraying itself as an open country, open to exports to its neighbours. It’s important for investors to know that if they are investing in a production capacity in Uganda from that capacity they can also export to other countries in the region that makes those investments so much interesting.

Uganda and the EU are trade partners, but the balance of trade is slanted to the point of Uganda importing more from the EU than it exports. Is it part of your brief to bring about a balanced trade between Uganda and the EU?

Absolutely! I would consider that a success if during my period the exports for Uganda to the EU were to grow. Of course from that to happen, it is important that all the standards that the European Importers and regulators expect are met.

But this should not be seen a defensive mechanism but, rather, one that we can work on together. That when there is a problem with the quality of the exports we have also collaboration on how we can fix these problems. I think, frankly speaking, this is how we are working together now and of course it’s also important for the Ugandan economy to diversify and to move beyond agricultural exports only, although I think that even there the potential is not fully exploited.

Let’s get back to you as an individual. How fulfilling was that first job?

It was fulfilling but I did not stay for long because my dream was to join the ministry of Foreign Affairs. So, that happened very quickly and I started working. My first job in the Foreign Affairs ministry was desk officer for Burkina Faso in 1993. So this is where I had my first mission to Africa.

But in all this you don’t tell us what extracurricular activities you took part in, like being a member of the high school soccer team? What are your hobbies?

I think I am probably most happy when I walk on a green football pitch at the beginning of a match as a player, and a striker at that. When I don’t score one or two, I walk off very unhappy.

Other than football, is there anything else?

Painting. And I am looking forward to painting pictures of Ugandan culture and nature. When you work with books and reports all day long, you put aside your creative mind and in this, you need a balance. I enjoy painting. My father is an architect so in my family, art is high on the agenda. You won’t see me on a golf course.

Yet the perception is a lot of diplomatic engagements are done on the greens...

I am afraid that will be without me.

A good game of lawn tennis?

I can play but I cannot serve. [Laughter]

And do we hope to chance on you jogging around Kololo or on a treadmill in some gym?

You may see me jogging around.

Back to you…. you have a family, a wife and children?

Oh, I have a family and I would say without that I probably would not have been able to move around so much. If you do this alone, you end up being very lonely.

But some people could argue that a family may impede this kind of moving around as it may not be in line with say a spouse or kids’ whims and fancies...

In my case I was lucky to meet the love of my life when I was 17 in France during that first [difficult] year and so we have moved around together. We now have three children, two of them are with us here in Uganda and one is staying at home to finish his high school diploma.

They like it here in Uganda?

They have been here for a week and I can see they are already thriving and they are convinced daddy made the right choice to come here.

And mummy, is she fine with it? Does she consider this a perfect place to raise children?

Absolutely, but of course we have to recognize that we have very privileged conditions; so, I wouldn’t from that make a statement about how life is easy or not for families in Uganda.

Well, you have your work cut out, how about your wife? Will she be a stay-at-home mum…? How do spouses of diplomats thrive?

She is a teacher and she worked when we lived in Europe as a teacher. Before that, she was a lawyer but she got fed up with dealing with people’s problems and wanted to do something positive about the future generations.

I know that she intends, somehow, to continue as a teacher here in Uganda and I know that she is happy when she is surrounded by children. So, it would be a great mistake if I forced her to be a diplomatic wife all of her time.

I can see that she also enjoys doing that, we will have to find a balance and she will decide where she wants to put her time. I am happy she wants to work a little bit with me but I know she will be happy if she also has the freedom to pursue her own career.

What does she teach?

History, French because she is French, mathematics mainly for students who are 10-12.

By the time the curtains close on your tenure as EU ambassador to Uganda, what is it that you hope to have achieved?

I expect, first of all, to be someone who fully understands the Ugandan society. I hope to have, by then, very good contacts in the Ugandan government but I also hope and expect to know the society at large, civil society, how it is to live in the rural parts of the country, the challenges that people are facing.

I hope to be someone who will not stay in the office signing papers; I hope to be a guy who will be in the field and get to meet people in the countryside.

You may wish to share your outlook to this job.

I will manage a delegation of more than 50 people; so, part of my responsibility will be to manage the staff, give them the conditions under which they can do their job.

I am also ambassador for the European Union and so on political matters I coordinate the Member states and so I would also need to work with the member states of the European Union that have embassies here in Uganda to make sure that the messages I convey on their behalf are respecting a common position of my fellow European ambassadors.

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