Thursday, November 25, 2010

Alex Ellis, Britain's 'digital diplomat'

Alex Ellis, who is soon to move on from his post as British ambassador in Portugal, is not your average fuddy-duddy diplomat.

A BBC correspondent described Ellis as “our bicycling, open-shirted and youthful man in Lisbon.”

After three years as “an unfeasibly young” envoy, Mr Ellis is to return to London to take up the post of Director for Strategy within the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

What makes him different from all of his predecessors is not only that he's a youthful cyclist; he's also a blogger. He has had a blog running in Expresso online since 2008. This was in response to an Expresso invitation. Unlike many people in high positions, he writes his own blogs – and he does so in Portuguese.

What he likes about blogging for Expresso is that it allows his messages to reach a much wider audience across Portugal than they would through the British Embassy website. (To view his blog, go to http://aeiou.expresso.pt/um-bife-mal-passado=s24971.

"I blog to change the brand,” he explained, "to reach a new audience, to learn myself, and to make people laugh."

At a conference in the UK earlier this year he revealed that his mother had asked him what exactly he did as ambassador. He told her: “If you go to jail we visit you – once!”
He was jesting of course but this reply inadvertently highlighted a bone of contention in some circles in the Algarve. Modernisation within the FCO during Ambassador Ellis' tenure in Lisbon has meant less personal attention to British nationals abroad who get into trouble with the law, and more focus on such things as efficiency and cost-cutting.

Ambassador Ellis, however, showed considerable concern for those caught up in the flooding and mud slides in Madeira in February this year. He flew to the island with a consular rapid reaction team to provide support to affected Britons.

He started his Foreign Office career with the UK team supporting the transition to multi-party democracy in South Africa following the release of Nelson Mandela. He was in Brussels while negotiations were going on to establish the euro. In Madrid he worked on EU and economic issues and then in London on the 2004 EU enlargement. Between 2005 and 2007 he was an adviser to José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, on energy, climate change, competition, development, trade and strategy.

Having served as a junior member of the political team in the Lisbon Embassy in Lisbon between 1992 and 1996, he was an old Portugal hand when he arrived here as ambassador in 2007. And now another chapter in his rapid career rise is ending.

Last night, on probably his last visit to the Algarve, he was guest of honour at a British-Portuguese Chamber of Commerce dinner. Today he will attend a consular lunch to mark the recent appointments of Clive Jewell as British Consul to the Algarve and Miguel Sengo da Costa as British Honorary Consul in the Faro area.

When Alex Ellis relinquishes his post at the end of December. Joanna Kuenssberg O'Sullivan, counsellor and deputy chief of mission at the embassy, will hold the fort until a new ambassador arrives.

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