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Poland: Timely conversations on the EU, the bilateral relationship and Ukraine

As Chair of the BGIPU I led a delegation to Poland, the first by a formal Parliamentary delegation since 1996, at a time when the region was much in the news due to the crisis in Ukraine. I was accompanied by a knowledgeable and experienced team: Mark Lazarowicz MP, of Polish background, Stephen Pound MP who represents a significant community of Poles in Ealing, Julian Lewis MP, Jonathan Djanogly MP and Lord Davies of Stamford.

Following excellent briefings from the FCO and HE the Polish Ambassador in London, we began in Warsaw with a similar session from DHM Sarah Tiffin. These conversations set the scene for the issues which were to be dominant during our visit; the interest in our bi-lateral relationship, in the future of the EU and our respective positions, and what was happening in the Ukraine, and what President Putin might be doing next.

Our meetings with Parliamentarians began with deputy Speaker Grabarcyzk, who welcomed us. We explored our bi-lateral relationship principally with him, with the Chair of the Senate Committee on the economy, and an old friend of the UK, Marek Ziolkowski and with the Chair of the UK Parliamentary Friendship Group Mr John Godson and their colleagues. We discussed diaspora issues and rather bluntly the issues affecting the migration of Poles to the UK, hearing the rarely explored issue in the UK of the educational resource put into a young generation of Poles who had now left the country, and who were giving the benefits of their endeavours to the UK with its expanding economy. We agreed that we had much to share in terms of mutual benefit, and we stressed the value of the variety of Polish skills available to the UK. We talked through how our respective economies could make more of the ties between us in terms of exports.

A short visit to Andy Williams, the Director of the British Council in Warsaw, reminded us of the effectiveness of the UK presence. With a remit to develop English, Commerce and Culture in Poland, the Council is helping to deliver the language to the 18m of a 40m population who are learning it, with an increasing emphasis on early learning.

The EU was the backdrop to a thorough and detailed presentation of the use being made of European Funds, for which we are indebted to Mr Marcin Kubiak, the Under-Secretary at the Ministry of Infrastructure and Development and his colleagues. They had made exceptional efforts not only to detail how carefully money had been used in the transformation of Poland since EU entry, but also how this benefitted the UK. 69% of the additional exports of the UK credited to the use of the Funds by the four Visegrad countries between 2004 and 2015 are for Poland, a value to the UK of EUR 3.3bn. The vast majority of these are high and medium high technology products. UK SME’s had benefitted, though our hosts believed that our companies were slow in realising the opportunities in comparison to others.

Our hosts were unequivocal about the benefits of remaining within the EU. Whilst uncertainties remained about the Euro, support for the EU was strong. And a stronger and more unified energy policy, particularly in the light of pressure from Russia would help them. They were paying as much as 50% more for Russian Gas than France and Germany.

Russia and the Ukraine was the recurring theme in almost every meeting, but particularly when we met Deputy Foreign Minister Henryka Moscicka-Dendys, the Polish Institute of Foreign Affairs and the Chair of the Defence Committee Mr Stefan Niesiolowski. The Minister said that economically Ukraine is now where Poland had been. Ukraine could get through their difficulties, but only by hard work and facing up to problems. Our interlocutors expressed real concern for neighbouring states over Russia’s actions, and were clear about the need for member states of NATO to examine their defence spending, as few, apart from the UK, matched Poland’s commitment. But there was no enthusiasm for the Ukraine to join NATO, which produced exchanges on Ukraine’s sovereign rights.

There was much discussion over whether the Russian President had a clear plan for Russia’s current adventures, or whether he was more of an opportunist. A consensus appeared to settle around President Putin as having a vision to re-create the Soviet safety zone of the past, but no particular plan to execute, rather an ability to respond to events advantageous to him. The west was being consistently probed and tested. Serious economic sanctions, although they would cut both ways in terms of costs, were the correct and urgent response, together with bolstering NATO defences in central European states.

After two days in Warsaw, the group moved on to Krakow, where time required us to divide our work. Lord Davies accompanied me on a moving visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where we paid the respects of Parliament at this memorial to the atrocity of mankind. The sight of many young Israeli visitors, carrying their nation’s flag, appeared to symbolise the ultimate triumph of the human spirit of survival.

Finally we had the chance to explore the economics and social structures of the vibrant Malopolska region, and the City of Krakow through the States’ Marshals office and the City Mayor, Jerzy Miller. Mr Miller has had a distinguished national and regional career in politics, and was a lively advocate for his historic and beautiful city. He gave a very clear exposition of his belief in localism, and the importance of accountability in the division of responsibilities between the centre and the regions.

May I thank all who made the visit possible: our excellent Embassy team who were with us all the way, the Polish IPU for their help in arranging the visit and the many MPs and officials who gave us time in meetings and over meals and in so doing gave the warmest reflection of the bi-lateral relationship. And of course to Dominique Rees of the BGIPU office, for her unfailing attention to detail and organisation.

Rt Hon Alistair Burt MP