UK's new ambassador on Brexit, climate change and backpacking in covid times
Dr Rob Dixon arrived in Bulgaria in August 2020. Prior to that he served as deputy director for Africa at the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, and as Deputy Head of Mission in Tel Aviv. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Wales Aberystwyth. He is married to Dòra Blazsek-Dixon, and they have one son. Originally from Birmingham, he was born in 1974 and enjoys outdoor sports, travel, history and reading.
Were your initial impressions of Bulgaria when you arrived here a few months ago at odds with what you had expected?
I had the privilege of studying Bulgarian for nearly 12 months prior to coming here, and, although that was disrupted because of the Covid-19 pandemic, and I couldn’t spend time in Plovdiv like my two predecessors, I had a good sense of what Sofia and Bulgaria would be like on arrival.
We have had a really warm welcome and Sofia has surpassed all our expectations. I am acutely conscious, though, that Sofia is not Bulgaria, and I am the British Ambassador to the whole of Bulgaria. That is why, when travel was possible, I made a priority to get out. My first visit outside the capital was to Svishtov where I presented the Duke of Edinburgh's Award alongside President Radev. I also visited Varna, Plovdiv, and, with my family, I have explored some of the beautiful countryside outside of Sofia. I cannot wait to do more!
The ambassador with President Rumen Radev during his accreditation ceremony
Apart from your immediate duties as ambassador, is there anything else that you are particularly interested in whilst in Bulgaria?
I think it is pretty clear that I have arrived in extraordinary times, so my ability to do many of the things that we used to consider normal – explore restaurants, museums, theatres, and travel – has been sadly limited.
Nevertheless, if the Covid-19 crisis has taught us one thing, it is the importance of our own mental wellbeing to have interests, passions and pastimes outside of work. For me, that’s a combination of spending time with my young family, doing sports and reading, but also getting outside of the city into what is an incredibly beautiful country.
As an ageing backpacker-turned-diplomat, I am passionate about trying to get under the skin of a country, to understand it, explain it and hopefully build meaningful partnerships between people. As a diplomat, it is a chance to deploy my passion for history, the architecture and learning about the literature of a country. I am busy continuing to learn Bulgarian. I want to do that because I think it helps you get a really good understanding of the culture and the people.
Imagine some friends come to visit you from the UK. Three things you would advise them to do?
My experience has been limited so far, I have to be honest, because of the extraordinary times in which I have arrived, but I would absolutely recommend to people to go to the Rila Monastery, to Veliko Tarnovo and to get to the seaside in the summer.
With participants in the Duke of Edinburgh's Award during his visit to Svishtov
I know that the absence of British tourists this year has hit the Bulgarian economy hard, and I look forward to the time when we are able to see British holidaymakers return in real numbers. But I also think Bulgaria has an enormous amount to offer beyond that which most British tourists get to see. Bulgaria is way more than fantastic ski resorts and a beautiful coastline. I would love to see more British tourists out and about exploring other parts of the country, and I hope that both myself and my family will be able to experience some of that.
And three things you would you advise them to be careful about?
Everybody has told me how bad the traffic is in Sofia. Actually, the honest truth is that, having lived and worked in the Middle East, it’s not that bad, but there is some adjustment. But I know in winter air quality isn’t great. I think this is a timely reminder of the importance of dealing with environmental pollution and protecting our air quality. Environmental issues are one of my top priorities ahead of the UK-hosted conference on Climate Change, COP26 next November. It so important that we protect our fragile environment especially given the extraordinary natural environment Bulgaria has been blessed with.
I think my advice to people coming to Sofia would be: get out there and enjoy it. Obviously, in Covid-19 times, be sensible about the way in which you do that but there still are some fantastic places to see. Bulgaria is very special and there is huge amount for people to do and experience.
In your opinion, does Bulgaria stand out in any way against the background of its Balkan neighbours? And in a wider context against the background of its partners in the EU?
In a way, this is one of the reasons why I was so attracted to coming to Bulgaria to be British ambassador. This is a relationship that really matters for both the UK and for Bulgaria in a very real sense.
There are large numbers of Bulgarians living in the UK, and significant numbers of Brits who have chosen to make Bulgaria their home. I can absolutely see why that is the case.
The relationship between our countries matters for our security, our well-being and for our prosperity. This is a long-standing partnership between two countries who probably have more contact now than at any time in our past, at a very real, human level. I am looking forward to taking that to the next level as we approach the end of the UK's Transition Period, building an equal partnership that really delivers for the UK and Bulgaria.
Do you have an opinion on the "Macedonian Question" the way it is being portrayed in Bulgaria?
I recognise that some of this is sensitive and difficult territory for our friends and partners in Bulgaria and in North Macedonia. The UK has travelled a long way with Bulgaria on its Euro-Atlantic journey – since the changes in the early 1990s and as one of the foremost advocates of Bulgarian membership of both NATO and the EU.
In the same vein, we see the huge strategic significance in ensuring that Western Balkans countries, including North Macedonia, have that same Euro-Atlantic destiny as well.
Do you have an idea how Bulgaria's relationship with the UK will change as of 1 January 2021?
I am really glad you have asked this question. It is a moment of change but I think also huge opportunity in our long-standing partnership.
Right now I am focused on supporting our nationals, whether that is the nearly 200,000 Bulgarians in the UK, or the 15,000 Brits who live in Bulgaria, through the process of change that will happen as the UK approaches the end of the transition period.
But it is also really important that we now look beyond the end of the transition period and focus on the fundamentals of a key relationship built on shared interests: as NATO members, as strong law enforcement partners – and look to develop further a partnership which has seen real growth in terms of jobs and investment over the last few years. As well working relationship to champion a continued close alignment of our values.
What I am absolutely looking forward to is building on all the great work that has come before and now taking the partnership to the next level, delivering for both Brits and Bulgarians in a very real sense – whether that is in terms of security, jobs, on the environment or, indeed, in defending our shared values.