Madrid’s new envoy to Britain shakes up Spanish business community

Ambassador Federico Trillo “went berserk” over trade board appointment

Federico Trillo presents his credentials to Queen Elizabeth as Spain's new ambassador to Britain.
Federico Trillo presents his credentials to Queen Elizabeth as Spain's new ambassador to Britain.POOL

After former Defense Minister Federico Trillo presented his credentials in May as Spain's new ambassador to Britain, he called the Spanish press together for a news conference. "I am a political ambassador," Trillo said, and then went on to discuss politics for a long hour.

It is clear that Trillo would rather be a politician than a diplomat, projecting an image of a viceroy who tells his subjects: I make the rules here.

Trillo has made his moves, replacing 18 diplomats in five months and sowing fear and resignation among the rest of the Spanish embassy personnel that remains. "I will execute anyone who says a word," he reportedly told one employee.

But Trillo's damaging strong-arm stratagem has been especially felt at the Spanish Chamber of Commerce in Great Britain, an entity where he serves as honorary president. Just a few days after Belén Amat-Martín was appointed the new secretary general following a unanimous board vote, Trillo forced her out. Shocked members were quickly reminded of Franco-era tactics. "We fell for it," complained one member.

Trillo has replaced 18 diplomats in just five months

It all began in July when current chamber president Fernando Pérez (general manager of the architectural firm Idom) told the ambassador that Silvia Estivill, the then-secretary general, was planning to leave and asked him if he had someone in mind. Trillo asked him to give him time to think about it.

A few days later, Pérez ran into the ambassador and told him that they had found a jewel: Amat-Martín, the representative for the Andalusia Foreign Trade Agency (Extenda). Other members were also happy about the choice because she served on the chamber's board.

But Pérez came away from that brief meeting shell shocked. Instead of Trillo congratulating him he "went berserk," according to a source who is not on the board but has been close to the goings-on at the chamber for quite some time.

As another source put it: "Trillo didn't understand how we could have named someone who works at a 'quasi-legal, anti-constitutional' entity." Or as Trillo directly said to Pérez, who relayed the message to other board members: an agency that "represents wasteful spending by a regional government."

I am a political ambassador and that is what is needed here"

There was increased pressure for the chamber board to fire Amat-Martín, says another source. "It was a grotesque situation," recalls one member.

Trillo then summoned the chamber's heavyweights to the embassy: Ricardo Laiseca (BBVA), Javier San Basilio (Mapfre), Juan Botín (Banco Santander), José Melchor (Ferrovial Agromán) and Santiago Gómez (Gómez-Villares, Álvarez y Atencia Abogados). The ambassador had assigned his economic attaché, who is also a Spanish government lawyer, to prepare a legal opinion as to why Amat-Martín had to go. While some insist that the opinion was fashioned to fit Trillo's needs, the ambassador denies this.

"Fernando calls me in July to tell me that Estivill was leaving and asked if I knew someone," Trillo recalled. "I told him that we would discuss the matter after the summer vacation. When we all returned he told me that the board had already found someone and that it was a person who was a member. I told him that option was not valid. And he tells me that the problem is that the girl is going to be without a job. Fernando gets upset and tells me that he disagrees with me. I told him that this is a legal issue not a political matter."

Ambassador Trillo said he was surprised that this entire matter had been played out in the media.

He insists that a person who is on the chamber's board of directors cannot become secretary general, referring to the legal opinion drafted by the embassy's economic attaché, which suggests conflict of interest. "Before her own duty to promote exports from all Spanish companies, Andalusian products could have the sole beneficiary from the promotion of Extenda," the legal opinion states.

The document also explains that no secretary general may have participated beforehand as a board member, whose responsibilities have been to award chamber contracts. A third legal point centers on the incompatibility between her past experience in deciding who gets the contracts and becoming the person who manages them as the secretary general.

"It is a completely absurd document," says one member of the board. "We asked [law firm] Cuatrecasas to prepare another opinion, which concluded we acted correctly." Still, the board voted 14 to three to let Amat-Martín go.

"We decided to fire her not because we felt the appointment was incorrect, but because we were facing a powerful ambassador and the entire embassy. We were voting between conviction and responsibility," said another board member.

Today, the secretary general's post remains vacant. Some estimate that this entire affair cost the chamber some 50,000 euros, a big chunk of its budget.

But the envoy insists: "I told them when I first arrived: I am a political ambassador. And I believe that is what is needed here."

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