Guest blog by Iain Stewart, Head of Political at the British Embassy Warsaw.
My name is Iain Stewart. I lead the political team within the UK Embassy in Warsaw.
What does that mean? Our main role is to explain and promote UK government thinking on the EU and international agenda to a Polish audience. To do this effectively, it is vital that we understand where Poland is coming from too. This means working closely with our Polish counterparts, particularly in the Foreign Affairs Ministry. But not only government. We also engage with business, the media and research institutes and ‘think-tanks.’ [The point of all of this is to foster a close bilateral relationship with Poland, a country with whom we share history and much common thinking on the big issues of the day.]
I had the opportunity to do this at the Polish British Round Table, held just over a week ago in the classical surroundings of Vila Decius. The Round Table is an annual gathering of intellectuals, commentators and political figures from the UK and Poland. Unusually, it predates the fall of communism in Poland, having first taken place in the early 1980s – a very different political climate.
An unashamedly select affair, it consists of around 20-30 participants, by invitation only – which lends it kudos. The organisers include the Centre of European Studies in Oxford (Prof Timothy Garton Ash is one of the leading participants), demosEuropa (a think-tank based in Warsaw) and the Royal Institute of International Affairs (based in London). Participants included Lord Patten, George Eustice MP and Emma Reynolds, Shadow Europe Minister, as well as several EU and foreign policy experts. Polish attendees included two former Foreign Ministers, along with leading economists and political advisers.
What actually happened? Well, there is no doubt that this was largely a talking shop. But a fascinating and useful talking shop nonetheless. It was a chance to exchange views and challenge assumptions around some of the big contemporary issues facing us. Such as: how can Poland and the UK – as two countries outside the Eurozone – work together to overcome the economic crisis? Is German fiscal discipline going too far? Or not far enough? Are we doing enough to drive innovation and create economic growth? (Answer: we all need to do more.) More broadly, what does the crisis mean for the future of Europe? And, looking beyond Europe, what are the opportunities and risks from a rising China?
Europe – and perceptions over the UK’s approach to the EU – generated some sparky exchanges. One UK participant questioned the EU’s effectiveness, arguing that the whole ‘project’ should be radically reformed – otherwise, the argument went, those voices calling for the UK to withdraw from the EU would become louder and stronger. Many Poles – and several Brits – in the room found this hard to take.
It is certainly a view at odds with the UK government’s stance, which remains committed to positive engagement in the EU. But we do not see the EU as beyond criticism. Where we see room for improvement in how or what the EU does, we will not hesitate to push for better results.
Poland largely shares this view, but it struck me that Polish policy makers sound increasingly evangelical about Europe. And whilst I am sure that most ordinary Poles want to see Poland operating at the heart of Europe, shaping its future, many of them also have fundamental questions about the nature and direction of the EU, especially at a time of economic crisis. Just like in the UK, people want to see Europe making a difference to our shared prosperity and security interests.
Beneath the headlines, these are issues on which the UK and Polish governments have much in common. We collaborate closely on EU issues, like how to improve the single market; drive economic growth; agree sensible, business-friendly social and employment legislation; deliver an effective policy towards Ukraine and Belarus; and – perhaps more surprisingly – reform of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). We also have a flourishing trade relationship, boosted by the 40,000 Polish-run businesses operating in the UK.
So there is a positive story to tell. This annual meeting in Krakow is part of this. It creates a space for a thoughtful, serious debate. The event closed with a lovely dinner in Kazimierz, the historic Jewish district of Krakow. Where, despite (or because of?) the availability of 70% proof Polish vodka, a spirit of mutual respect and understanding prevailed.