The new British High Commissioner arrived in Cyprus last year in April to take up his new post. Based in Nicosia, Mr Stephen Lillie relished the chance to come to Cyprus with his wife, Denise, and they live together in the High Commissioner’s residence. Their two sons are currently studying at university in the UK.
“BREXIT WILL NOT MEAN A REDUCTION IN UK ENGAGEMENT IN CYPRUS”
Interview by Cyprus in Style Magazine: September 2019
WHERE ARE YOU ORIGINALLY FROM?
I was born in Bradford which makes me a Yorkshireman, but I actually grew up in Nottingham, which also means I am a Nottinghamshire man. This ties in very well with the serving regiments who are currently here in Cyprus – The 2nd Battalion Royal Anglians and 2nd Battalion Mercian Regiment. I studied German and French at Queen’s College, Oxford University. Upon graduating, I joined the Foreign Office where I spent 2 years learning Chinese at the School of Oriental and African Studies and the Chinese University of Hong Kong. This led to postings in China, and a subsequent career focused on Asia, with more postings to India and also to the Philippines where I served as British Ambassador from 2009 – 2013. I received a CMG in 2017 for services to UK relations with Asia. This was presented to me by HRH The Duke of Cambridge at Buckingham Palace in March 2018, shortly before I came to Cyprus. Following five years in the UK as Director of Asia Pacific at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we moved to Cyprus in April, 2018.
WHY DID YOU JOIN THE DIPLOMATIC SERVICE?
I have always been fascinated by international politics and foreign relations. And I was also interested in foreign languages, which I studied at university. The Diplomatic Service is the perfect career for someone with those shared interests, all the more so if, like me, you are attracted to living overseas and travelling to different destinations.
HOW DO YOU LIKE CYPRUS?
I am very much enjoying my time in Cyprus. I came here with no pre-conceptions and feel that I came with a fresh pair of eyes to the Cyprus problem. We are based in Nicosia but have enjoyed going out and about across the island. It has been a wonderful experience to explore Cyprus and discover the place, the scenery and the culture. Before coming to Cyprus I learnt to speak Greek to help enhance my experience of the island, but still need to keep practicing.
WHAT DOES YOUR JOB INVOLVE?
I’m here to promote and protect the UK’s interests in Cyprus across the board. A big focus of our work at the moment is Brexit. Since I arrived, I’ve been very clear that Brexit will not mean a reduction in UK engagement in Cyprus. So we are actively promoting UK interests in a whole range of areas, from business to education, from law enforcement to military co-operation. I also closely follow political issues such as the Cyprus problem.
An important part of my job here involves supporting our British community, who not only live here, but also holiday here. There are 70,000 British citizens living in the Republic and over 13,000 living in the north of the island. In addition each year we have 1.3 million visitors to the island from the UK. We provide assistance to visitors in a variety of situations. We provide support to British citizens in difficulties – both residents and visitors. We focus as a team on the most vulnerable who may need our help. Very often we work in the area of health needs and try and work with others to support those going through hard times.
WHAT IS THE BEST PART OF YOUR PROFESSION?
I would say that it is the variety of my day that is the most interesting part. I find myself dealing with a whole range of very different issues. For example a typical day could be meeting a government minister, having lunch with business people, a media interview and then a meeting with members of the British community. This gives me the chance to meet a variety of people from different cultures. Being out and about is very much a part of my job.
WHAT IS THE WORST PART OF THE JOB?
The only hard part is that you are never truly completely off duty. The work is very full on and does not stop, even if I take a day off. I always need to be fully available to deal with situations which may arise.
WHAT DO YOU DO TO RELAX WHEN YOU ARE NOT WORKING?
One of my perfect days out would be to do a hike that finished with a nice taverna at the end of the walk. I particularly enjoy the countryside of the Troodos Mountains. In the end, ambassadors and high commissioners are the same as everybody else. So I also enjoy listening to music, watching television (usually crime or other dramas) and reading.
I have enjoyed visiting the Paphos region where we have done many Brexit outreach events. We did three events in Paphos once in one day. On future visits to Paphos, when I am not quite so busy, I hope to be able to explore the old town area as I have heard excellent reports about the regeneration there. The area around Polis and Latchi is particularly beautiful. The Paphos forest and Cedar Valley are areas I look forward to further exploring. I have also been very impressed with the high standard of Cypriot wines and relish the chance to visit the numerous wineries across Cyprus. At our events we serve Cypriot wine at The High Commission.
WHAT IS THE BEST ADVICE YOU CAN GIVE TO BRITISH CITIZENS AT THIS TIME?
The UK Government is committed to leaving the European Union on the 31st October of this year. Our British citizens need to prepare for this to happen. Whilst agreements have been reached with the European Union to safeguard the rights of UK nationals, it is essential that British Citizens have secured either an MEU 1 (temporary residence) or an MEU 3 (permanent residence). This will ensure that, after Brexit, our citizens will have the same rights as they do now. For example, the right to live here and to work, own property and access benefits like healthcare and social security.
I cannot stress enough that all British Nationals must do this to be properly registered with the Cypriot authorities. If you have an old Alien Registration Card (ARC) from years ago, or an outdated and invalid immigration stamp in your passport, you must also change this to an MEU 1 or 3 – with no exceptions! If you do not do so, it could restrict your ability to live in Cyprus post-Brexit.
Editor’s note: Since this interview took place, the Cyprus House of Representatives has unanimously approved a bill which guarantees that even in a No Deal Brexit, UK nationals legally residing in Cyprus before Brexit will retain their citizens’ rights. The above registration advice still stands in order to qualify.
WHAT ARE YOUR FUTURE PLANS AT THE HIGH COMMISSION?
My main aim is to build a positive and modern relationship between the UK and Cyprus. We share lots of great history, but we need to focus together on the future challenges and opportunities we may face. We are also taking the High Commission and our work to a larger audience through social media to explain what we do. We are doing projects, for example, to reconnect with Cypriots who have studied in the UK. There are tens of thousands of Cypriot students who have graduated from the UK and we are very keen to maintain our relationship with them. We are working with various alumni and university groups to keep in touch.
The UK/Cyprus partnership is a very special relationship. We are working together in many areas, from education, science and innovation to trade, investment, legal co-operation, entrepreneurship, environmental issues and security issues; and as partners within the Commonwealth. Our co-operation is about much more than the Cyprus problem or the British Bases in Cyprus, important though these are. One of my main aims is to ensure that Brexit, when it happens, does not diminish relations between Britain and Cyprus and to make sure that wider negotiations do not lead to barriers to trade. I also want to make sure that there are no problems for Britons living in Cyprus and for Cypriots living in the UK.
We also hope to make a positive contribution to the Cyprus Problem. Great Britain, as a friend of the Cypriot people, will always do what we can to support the process.
Interview by Cyprus in Style Magazine.
Written by Sarah Coyne