By Daniel Kawczynki
There are many reasons why a partnership between two countries may flourish.
Historical factors – and a legacy of working together – will always play a role. As will co-operation on issues of strategic importance, such as defence and trade.
A shared vision for the future is increasingly more than just a nice to have, too – particularly at a time when political uncertainty is creeping its way across the globe at an alarming rate.
Standing in Warsaw, looking out, there are more friends than enemies, thankfully. Two friends stand out in particular: Germany and the UK.
Both are hugely significant trading partners for Poland. Both have immense clout on the international stage. And both show a determination to work with Europe in facing the challenges of the future – even if there are, admittedly, some disagreements as to the role of the European Union in delivering that.
Yet – as it stands – Germany is losing ground on the UK, fast. The country that has welcomed millions from across the world to the World Championships this week is edging ahead in the diplomatic race to court favour in Warsaw, and has been for some time.
Partly, this is inevitable. The British-Polish partnership is built on more than just trade or economic interests; it is built on a history of cooperation and mutual support.
When the outcome of the Battle of Britain was in the balance, it was the arrival of the Poles to fight against the Luftwaffe that tipped the balance in favour of the British.
After 1990, it was Britain who led the way in calling for the Paris Club to rescind a large proportion of Poland’s communist era debts, and it was a British Conservative Government that took on the Soviets and supported solidarity to help Poland to be free again.
In more recent times, it was Britain that advocated for Poland’s membership of NATO and of the European Union.
Germany’s historical relations with Poland, by contrast, are somewhat more chequered. It is to the credit of both countries that they have put differences aside to work together admirably for many years. But – in the present day – the relationship appears to be increasingly under strain.
A gulf is opening up between Germany and Poland in their visions on defence and security, particularly on the role of the EU. The question of how much authority the Union should have over its member states is a delicate one – with the Poles erring on the side of caution, out of respect for their own national independence and right to self-determination.
Yet Germany sees this differently, and continues to support the EU’s interference in domestic Polish affairs, such as the judicial system and management of its ancient woodland. Neither case has been well received in Warsaw.
The EU will continue to shape relations between Poland and Germany for years to come. For UK/Polish ties, it’s a different story. The UK’s departure from the EU will cut out the (often unwelcome) EU middle man as London and Warsaw continue to strengthen their relationship.
It’s a relationship founded on considerable common ground. Take defence, for example. On this issue, a shared vision exists. NATO is – rightly – seen as the sole common defence umbrella for the whole continent, resolute in upholding Article 5 of the NATO treaty in the face of a recalcitrant Russia.
To support Poland, the UK has stationed more than 150 British soldiers in Orzysz. This, in turn, has sent a strong message to Russia that the UK will not tolerate any infringement on the sovereignty or independence of Poland. The UK has also committed 1,000 personnel to assist Poland’s management of the NATO’s Very High Readiness Joint Task Force in 2020.
There are many in the UK that share my fervent hope that the NATO presence in Poland is a prelude to establishing a permanent NATO base there.
By contrast, Germany appears intent to look East, rather than West, and develop its long-standing relationship with Russia. Whilst preaching the need for EU solidarity, Germany continues to enthusiastically encourage the proposed Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which is set to bypass the whole of central and Eastern Europe, thus threatening the energy security of these areas for years to come.
Chancellor Merkel is also sitting on the fence on a permanent NATO base in Poland, a necessary step in facing up to Russia in the region. Germany appears to be conflicted in more ways than one right now – and it’s showing.
By contrast, the UK is focused on one thing above all right now: making the most of Brexit. Part of that means working hard to bolster bilateral ties, including with Poland.
That focus is showing in more ways than one. Just as defence and security ties continue to strengthen between the UK and Poland, so do trade and investment relations. The UK is Poland’s second largest EU trading partner and UK-led investment is flooding into Poland. Tesco, the brainchild of a Polish immigrant to the UK, is now operating widely across the country. Advances have been made by GlaxoSmithKline and AVIVA, helped by the strong support offered by the Polish Ministries’ pro-business approach.
It’s a reciprocal relationship. There are 300 flights a week between the UK and Poland. Polish is the second most spoken language in the UK, and there are 980,000 Polish nationals in the UK – partly because Britain, unlike Germany, placed no restriction on the free movement of Polish workers to the UK on its accession to the EU.
Poles continue to make an enormous contribution to life in the UK and approximately 87,000 companies have been set up in the UK by the Polish diaspora. Both Warsaw and London recognise the potential here, and things are moving forward fast. In 2016, joint Polish-British inter-government consultations were held, chaired by the respective Prime Ministers of Poland and the UK.
New initiatives are popping up too – like the Belvedere Forum, a platform for civil society representatives to exchange experiences. The first forum attracted 120 Polish and British representatives of the world of politics, business, media, science and NGOs, an impressive turnout.
In fact if Poland and the UK want to do even more together, as is the clear intention of both Governments, I believe that the UK must look to establish a dedicated trade envoy for Poland. The aim? To ensure in the long term that the UK becomes Poland’s number one trading partner.
Relations with other traditional partners in Europe will obviously remain of critical importance for Poland – but, as is the case with Germany, complications can cause cracks to form, and relations suffer as a result. With the UK, there are no evident cracks – just opportunities. So the UK is the obvious choice for the role of Poland’s primary partner right now, and in the immediate future.
As Prince William has made clear on his recent visit to Poland, the links between the UK and Poland offer much promise and opportunity for the future. It’s time to get on with making the most of them.