Polish-UK relations: How might they look like in the post-Brexit era?

October 22, 2020

The jury might still be out on how Polish-UK relations will look after Brexit and once the transition period ends later this year, assuming, of course, Britain does effectively leave the EU without additional delays.

The British government headed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson is sticking to the plan and insists that there will be no further extension. But if one likened the EU to a house of the future, would there be more insulation and sound proofing to it, would it be more environmental and perhaps be a bit more open? And, how would Polish-UK relations change?

These and other matters were up for discussion at the most recent Polish-UK Belvedere Forum bilateral held at Chatham House in London’s fashionable St James’ Square earlier this year, just days prior to the official lockdown. It marked the fourth time this annual event, which alternates each year between London and Warsaw, was convened.

Photo: British Poles

High-profile Polish-British civil society dialogue

The second iteration had been held in London in February 2018. The third edition in Warsaw saw almost 300 participants attend at the Royal Castle in Warsaw with a reception at Belvedere Palace, after which “co-organisation” efforts passed to Chatham House and to the well respected Polish Institute of International Relations (PISM) think tank based in Warsaw. This was in a year where the two countries celebrated 100 years of renewed diplomatic relations. Given the event’s growing stature, the next one will be held next year in Poland although, in light of recent developments, one might wonder whether it might be held virtually.

Described as a “very important civil society dialogue”, the 2020 event was certainly noteworthy for several reasons, and not only for the venue, a Grade-I listed 18th century house that three British prime ministers have occupied.

It was the first time these discussions had been convened since the UK officially left the EU on 31 January 2020. Until the transition period is over, however, the UK remains subject to EU law and part of the EU customs union and Single Market.

The event – the brainchild of both British and Polish governments – was the first one to be co-organised by the Polish-British Belvedere Forum joint steering committee with international relations body Chatham House that celebrates its centenary in 2020, together with PISM. In recent years high profile speakers here have included the UN’s former Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The Forum brings together representatives from a wide range of backgrounds, including academia, business, media, think tanks, NGO’s, culture and the diaspora. Its aim is to “strengthen and deepen” the extensive partnership between Poland and the U.K. by exploring political, economic, social and cultural issues through debates and discussions.

As Sir Malcolm Rifkind, an ex-UK foreign minister and co-chair of Forum’s joint Steering Committee said in introductory remarks: “Ideas and friendships made are as important as the formal dialogue. [And] friendship between the two countries can flourish.”

Polish-UK relations in times of Brexit

In opening remarks preceding the main event, where Chatham House rules did not apply and it was on the record, Paweł Jabłoński, Poland’s Undersecretary of State for Economic Diplomacy, Development Cooperation and EU law, opined that “the decision of the UK to leave the EU has left Poland disappointed. It leaves Poland without an important partner inside the EU…but we will hopefully work closer together.”

“Undoubtedly there is an opportunity to strengthen our bilateral relations”, he added. Still, there were “tough days” ahead and the Forum itself “tackles the most relevant topic and is not just a think tank,” but one of the main platforms to discuss the long standing relations between Britain and Poland dating back centuries (Note: For more information see Norman Davies’ definitive history of Poland published in 1977).

This time round the event consisted of two main plenary sessions and ten breakout sessions. These spanned business and economics (including Brexit naturally), politics and international affairs (from climate change to transatlantic relations and European security), as well as society and culture (including law and politics, Polish and British diaspora). Bar plenary panels, most sessions were not officially recorded.

The organisers pulled in guest speaker Greg Hands, UK Minister of State for Trade Policy, who rounded proceeding off on the first day. “The UK and Poland have an important bilateral relations and so much in common history,” he told attendees at a drinks reception room amid a photographic exhibition looking at 100 years of Polish-UK relations and the Polish diaspora in the UK during the 70s and 80s by Czesław Siegieda.

Hands added: “Trade between the two countries is moving: UK exports to Poland were up last year (+8%) and so too are UK investments into Poland. Equally, Polish investment to Britain is starting to come through.”

Polish-UK relations in the post-Brexit era

In the opening plenary session moderated by Kasia Madera, a BBC World presenter who has Polish heritage, issues were touched on bilateral ties and around how Brexit will affect UK-Poland relations as well as how the relationship might be sustained and deepened going forward. Potentially the discussion had much to offer, although sometimes with such big topics, things can go off piste and some participants can have axes to grind.

From left: Kasia Madera, a BBC World presenter moderating a panel at Chatham House, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Chairman of Cancer Research UK, Gisela Stuart, former Labour MP and current Wilton Park chair, Karolina Zbytniewska, Editor-in-Chief, Euractiv.pl, Professor Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, member of the National Development Council advising the President of Poland. Photo: British Poles

Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Chairman of Cancer Research UK and former vice-chair of Cambridge University, speaking on this panel and acknowledging at the outset that he was a “a staunch remainer”, said: “Poland is a very important partner. However, Poland is facing the same global issues as is the UK – climate change, biodiversity, an ageing population and social security around society as a whole. These are global problems and we [Poland and the U.K.] can both make a huge contribution.”

There are “real opportunities” he also noted. This included exchange of talent. “Poland is also developing a very exciting entrepreneurship culture, which could easily find its counterparts in the UK. So, bilateral interaction [is] easily possible.”

Gisela Stuart, former Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston who campaigned for ‘Leave’ and current Chair of Wilton Park, an executive agency of the UK Foreign Office dedicated to conflict resolution in international relations, noted that the “shock about Brexit was that it should have happened in 2016.” Her contention was that even the international press has “not even tried to explain” what was happening in Britain for the last three years or so.

On bilateral discussions, she said: “We need bilaterals that go to some depth and where there we provide the space to talk to each other but also listen to each other. And I suggest that this will be more difficult for the British side to get into the habit of listening again than for the Polish side.”

“There are some areas which have always been joint interests between Poland and the UK – defence, environment, demography and global health. Then there are other interests that I think will need to be tackled differently given that the UK is leaving [the EU].”

‘Lose-lose’ scenario?

Karolina Zbytniewska, editor-in-chief at EURACTIV.pl, warned for her part that “there is the possibility of a cliff-edge scenario at the end of this year. The ‘lose-lose’ scenario if you like. If we take the example of Polish mid-sized and smaller (SME) companies that trade with UK, they are not ready for co-operation with non-EU states and will choose instead dealing/trading with other markets within the harmonised single market of the EU.”

“They will choose France or the Netherlands [i.e. from 2021]. It’s because micro-sized businesses won’t be able to afford costs around in-house lawyers, compliance or even regulation research,” she added.

Having completed undergraduate studies in the UK back in 2006, Zbytniewska added: “Poland and the UK are bound with the strong and multifarious relations, still I should add these relations are difficult today given the situation around Brexit which causes a strategic stalemate. My take will be that bilateral initiatives, businesses and co-operation are great, but not at the cost of undermining or weakening the EU’s cohesion and unity.”

Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, a Professor from the University of Łódź and member of the National Development Council advising the President of Poland reminded that “security issues will be one of the most important aspects post Brexit and particularly from the Polish point of view. We [Poland] highly appreciate British military presence in eastern flank of NATO – in Estonia.”

“Poland is a very old democracy and proud of that fact. Judges, for example, have been elected by our citizens as far back as 1454. There are also similarities to Britain. Further, we are highly appreciative of the Russian threat in similar way to the Russian imperialist threat during the nineteenth century directed towards Britain.”

Among emerging challenges going forward, the professor said: “We have to create a flexible    mechanism to consult each other to all the challenges that will emerge in different countries in Europe. But there is also a great job to be done as far as the attraction of British investment is concerned. And, the last great challenge is to use the huge Polish community in Britain both to promote the knowledge about Poland and links between Poland and Britain.”

Award-winning Anglo-Polish singer Katy Carr reflecting on aspects of the event said that “going forward I think the event organisers might consider expanding the discussion to include further topics on wider cultural areas and potentially include some live music.”  To be fair here, there were breakout sessions on society and culture (e.g. values shared between British and Polish societies) and changing workforces.

From left: George Byczynski, Editor-in-Chief, British Poles, Dermot Turing, lawyer, author and a nephew of mathematician Alan Turing, Arkadiusz Mularczyk, lawyer, member of Polish Parliament. Photo: British Poles

For me personally two highlights from the event were meeting and chatting with Sir Dermot Turing, lawyer, author and a nephew of mathematician Alan Turing, and getting a quick word with Lord Falconer, QC and Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (2003-2007) after he spoke on a law and politics panel. More widely though, now that there have been four Belvedere Forums since 2017, the network has grown considerably and that only bodes well for the future of the annual event and, hopefully, for the future of Polish-UK relations.

Note: The full ‘Poland and the UK: Bilateral Ties in A Shifting Political Context’ plenary session, can be viewed via www.chathamhouse.org/event/polish-british-belvedere-forum-2020.

Author: Roger Aitken

Pictures: British Poles

Roger Aitken is a  freelance financial journalist based in London and a former Financial Times staff writer covering stock exchanges, transaction services and trading technology, Roger has written for a number of publications, including The Guardian, The Independent and worked as a Forbes contributor for 5 years. He received a press prize from the Czech Republic on the 25th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution at the World Travel Market. The article has been firstly published on kafkadesk.org

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