Sian MacLeod

Sian MacLeod

UK Ambassador to Serbia

Part of UK in Serbia

6th November 2020 Belgrade, Serbia

Tea with Everything: A Diplomatic Week


Diplomacy is never a 9-5 job and, however much we like to plan,  it is rarely possible to predict exactly how your time will be spent in any given week.

The coronavirus pandemic has added to the unpredictability.  One thing is certain though: my week will involve drinking a lot of tea.

In my blogcast three weeks ago about visiting the city of Niš, I mentioned that ambassadors in Serbia were making the most of an autumn lull in coronavirus infection rates to get out and to travel around the country. We were reinstating cancelled visits, catching up on commercial interests, visiting cooperation projects –  or just getting out to visit new places and meet new people.

After a long period of virtual isolation I met more diplomatic colleagues in Belgrade last month than probably over the previous six.  I have been invited to a flurry of briefings, meetings and small events – some no doubt arranged quickly with a view to the uncertainty over what the winter ahead may bring. Of course, all meetings had the social distancing, face mask wearing and hand sanitising that has become part of everyday life.

Times are still far from normal.  The UK, Serbia and many other countries have introduced, or are considering, renewed measures to restrict coronavirus spread.  Like many workplaces embassies, including mine, are reviewing the steps we have in place to minimise risks to our staff.  I expect that much of our work will once again, for the next week or two at least, be done sitting behind a computer screen at home.

Before I return to that so- called ‘new normal’ might be a good moment for me to answer one of the questions I am most often asked. This is to say, what exactly do diplomats do? Not, what are you for? But, what does your normal day look like?

For most of us there is no such thing as a normal day. Variety is one of the best things about my job. It can also be one of its challenges.  Having such a range of competing priorities, opportunities and invitations tends to mean that a diplomat rarely if ever feels that their work is done.

There is always another briefing paper or article to read. Another report or letter to write. Another person to meet. Another town to visit.  Another seminar to speak at. Another invitation to reply to. Another language exercise to complete.  And these days, another online meeting……

Here’s a quick look at how I spent last week.

On many weekends I have official engagements to attend, such as commemorative events in different parts of the country. But that weekend fairly was free.  I hoped to get out to explore on my bike.  Sadly the air quality kept me indoors.

But the silver lining to that particular grey cloud was a free Saturday to catch up on reading and some Serbian homework.  I also recorded a short music video, having promised to take part in an online concert, and I made some Christmas puddings,  not knowing whether I will be able to get home to the UK to see my family in December.

Sunday is normally a quieter day, and I try to avoid working or asking my team to work. But with the announcement of the new Serbian Government expected, we were on standby to follow the news and report to London.  This still left me time for family calls, and to play some violin exercises and studies to keep my fingers in practice, and to do a bit more reading.

Music takes a lot of concentration, so rather like outdoor exercise, it is a good way to clear your head before thinking about the week ahead, which I always try to do very briefly on Sunday evenings to check that I have not forgotten about any important Monday morning meetings!

My weekday mornings usually start  (like a surprising number of British diplomats I believe) with the BBC Radio Programme ‘Farming Today’, and then the wonderful ‘Tweet of the Day’, a short burst on the radio of a different birdsong each day.  All days also start with a cup of tea, made the British way in a warmed tea pot with boiling water, and drunk with added cold milk.

I often listen to a Serbian language podcast before breakfast too, and then skim through the morning papers and check urgent e mails before starting my working day ‘proper’ with a fuller press briefing from my team.

After that, on Monday I had an online meeting with colleagues from across the Embassy to look at the week ahead – political events, business meetings, staff travel, Embassy maintenance and so on.

This week’s top priority is to report to London on the new Government and request meetings with new ministers where there is urgent bilateral business to pick up.

Another important priority was to send on a letter to President Vucic signed by my Prime Minister with French, Italian and Chilean leaders and the UN Secretary General. The topic was climate change and, specifically, an invitation to take part in a virtual Climate Ambition summit in December where we hope states will be ready to commit to ambitious national targets or plans for reducing the carbon emissions that are driving dangerous climate change.

But diplomacy is rarely a job where you can clear your desk completely to focus on one or two priorities.  You also need to make time for talking to diplomatic colleagues locally, checking guidance and instructions from capitals, reading telegrams from embassies around the world – and improving skills including foreign languages.

My Monday included a now rare diplomatic lunch with a small group of colleagues at the beautiful Czech Embassy and it ended with a Serbian lesson.  With evenings currently spent mostly at home, I spent some time catching up on UK news – and the latest UK, Serbian, and global COVID statistics.

On Tuesday I had several meetings with diplomatic colleagues.  These included a briefing at the UN offices on missing persons, a painful legacy of the conflicts of the 1990s, where the UK is providing financial support. Later, over tea in my garden I exchanged views with a different group of ambassadors on managing health risks to our staff. Later I went out to a rare working dinner with a group of ambassadors and visiting officials from another foreign ministry.

For many diplomats one of the biggest changes to our working patterns is the evenings spent at home with your family rather than attending official evening functions three or more times in a week.  Though I miss some of these events I have to admit that I have enjoyed having more time to do other things like reading, playing my violin and sewing – mostly face masks of course.

Ambassadors have management responsibilities as well as representative duties. So on Wednesday I chaired our Embassy Management Board, where representatives of all parts of the Embassy take collective decisions on our financial management, health and safety, ‘greening’ the Embassy and so on. I also called into a London online briefing for UK ambassadors about the pandemic. This is an excellent way to learn about the response to the situation at home and to keep London colleagues informed about challenges faced by posts around the world in these complicated times.

We have significantly reduced the numbers of visitors to our Embassy during the pandemic to reduce the risks to everyone.  But I am are lucky to have a garden and a large room where I can meet a small number of guests with plenty of space and ventilation.   On Wednesday evening a small number of experienced podcasters came to talk about their experience.  No tea this time, because our resourceful Residence Manager had found a source not only of good British beer but also ginger beer, a very British favourite.

I was glad to wake up early on Thursday so I could re-read relevant background papers before a meeting with the President today.  As a modern diplomat you often need to get your head around some complex issues, which are just as likely to be scientific or technical as classical foreign policy. Quiet early mornings can be a good time to do this – with an early morning cuppa of course.

I read the latest news on vaccine development and the international COVAX facility through which the UK, Serbia and many other countries will ensure that when vaccines are available they will be distributed to countries around the world that need them. Global challenges need global solutions after all. I also re-read plans for forthcoming international meetings on climate change where we are hope political leaders will make those ambitious national commitments to reducing carbon emissions.

Meeting your host head of state or government is always one of an ambassador’s most important duties. I was really pleased to have this chance to talk to the President about about reducing our impact upon the environment and developing greener economies as well as discussing the pandemic and progress on vaccine development.

Back in the office I took part in an online meeting about the UK’s programme of assistance across our six embassy Western Balkans Network.  More tea with a visitor – this time with sandwiches and traditional Welsh cakes – rounded off the working day. But it was a sad evening as I read terrible news from France about another terrorist attack, thinking of French friends and colleagues.

Friday was another early morning,  perhaps I haven’t adjusted to the hour change yet. I read a few chapters of a book written by one of my predecessors as ambassador in Belgrade.

Working from home for me here means being able to look out at oak trees with their yellowing leaves and late flowering autumn chrysanthemums in the garden. I am very lucky. I was looking forward to a quiet Friday morning catching up on e mail, reflecting on about an eventful week and looking forward to the week to come.  But life is never quite as you hope and I found myself with a lot of other urgent tasks to complete.

There was something else though for me to look forward to – apart from my afternoon Serbian lesson!  My colleague the Serbian Ambassador in London, Aleksandra Joksimovic, was in Belgrade on a brief visit.   We had last seen each other in London in early March so had a lot to catch up on.  We met up for – guess what – tea in a lovely city centre café. It was a very nice end to the working week.

Returning home, I settled down for the evening with maps and guide books to plan a weekend visit to Kikinda in Vojvodina, known by British ornithologists as the ‘owl capital of the world’, and also to visit some nearby nature reserves. I  had a feeling though that, even though it might still be early in the winter to see many owls, after the weekend I might not be getting out so much or travelling for a while.

I was right.  For the record, I saw five or six early bird owls, so beautiful that they took my breath away. But, with Belgrade facing increasing challenges from the coronavirus, I expect to be working from home quite a lot over the next few weeks.

Wherever I am working and however I am doing my work, I am sure that there will be plenty to keep me busy.  I am also sure that along with the work there will be lots of tea, known in the UK since the late 18th century as ‘the cup that cheers’.

I think we could all do with that at the moment.

About Sian MacLeod

Sian Macleod was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia in September 2019. Prior to this, Sian was Ambassador and Head of the UK Delegation to the Organization…

Sian Macleod was appointed Her Majesty’s Ambassador to the Republic of Serbia in September 2019. Prior to this, Sian was Ambassador and Head of the UK Delegation to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).

Sian joined the FCO in 1986. Her first posting was to Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, she served briefly in the Embassy in Vilnius. Since then she has been posted to The Hague, returned to Moscow 2004-7, where she became Minister (Deputy Head of Mission). Between overseas postings she has worked in the FCO and the Cabinet Office.

Sian was Ambassador in Prague from 2009 to 2013 and then Director of the British Council Triennial Review and FCO Additional Director for the Eastern European & Central Asian Directorate.

Sian is married to Richard Robinson and they have three children and enjoy music, cycling and cross-country skiing.

Before joining the FCO she studied music at the Winchester School of Art and the Royal Academy of Music.