hms iron duke

hms iron duke

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

Brexit from Poland

Warsaw, Poland. 29 June. It has been an interesting couple of days. My reason for coming here on the eve of the NATO Warsaw Summit was to present my new paper, NATO: The Enduring Alliance 2016 for the German Polish Co-operation Foundation. However, the 65 million person elephant in the room for much of the debate was of course Brexit. Part of me wondered what kind of reception I would get. After all, in the past I called for Britain to leave the EU, I predicted Brexit, before I decided after talking to a lot of people, and in the wake of the Paris attacks, that on balance Britain should remain. My concerns were misplaced. Poland of all countries understands the difficulty of balancing patriotism, interdependence, and membership of an institution a significant part of which would like to replace the democratic state with an oligarchic super-state.

What I found instead this morning at the Sjem, Poland’s parliament, when speaking to senior parliamentarians, was a respect for the democratic decision of the British people. What I also found was Polish pragmatism. Poland deeply regrets Brexit. However, there was absolutely no sense that the British people should somehow be punished for having the temerity to have expressed a majority opinion on a matter of fundamental import to them. Rather, there was a genuine commitment to forge a new relationship for Britain with the EU, and to confirm Britain’s existing relationships with friends and allies on the Continent. The terrible events in Istanbul last night served as a stark reminder of the dangers we all face and must all face together.

Encouragingly it was also an opinion of hope and goodwill expressed by Ambassador Rolf Nikel, Germany’s envoy to Poland, at a delightful reception held last night at the German Embassy. Indeed, the only humiliation to which I was subjected concerned the tactical withdrawal from the European football championships by England following their defeat by mighty Iceland. Don’t worry.  I immediately countered by enquiring as to the state of Berlin’s new airport!  

Poland is committed to keep the British fully engaged in the security and defence of Europe. They are right. To that end the forthcoming NATO Warsaw Summit must to some extent be a Brexit summit. Indeed, it will be a chance for London to remind it allies and partners that Britain remains a power and is utterly committed to the security and defence of Europe. There is one caveat. David Cameron and George Osborne are talking of more cuts to public expenditure in light of Brexit. It would certainly be a mistake to cut the British defence budget any further. It would also be advisable to re-invest in Britain’s diplomatic machine as London will need all the tools of influence at its disposal in the coming years.     

So, Poland need not worry…too much. However, Poland’s help would be much appreciated, recognising Warsaw faces its own political challenges at present. Forget all the pre-negotiation posturing. As France and Germany have proven in the past it is amazing how flexible European ‘principles’ are when it comes to power. A post-Brexit deal is possible. That was also the view of my Polish counterparts.

Which brings me to Scotland. If European partners such as Poland want to find a solution with and for the UK to the mutual benefit of all they must be careful how they respond to the political manoeuvrings of the Scottish Nationalist Party leader, Nicola Sturgeon. Her political mission is and always has been to destroy the UK. The Scots had a referendum in September 2014 which saw a decisive 55%-45% rejection of Scottish independence. Above all, Sturgeon legitimised the UK-wide Brexit referendum as a UK-wide referendum by campaigning in it, and by campaigning outside of Scotland for the Remain side. She can hardly cry foul simply because she lost a vote that she legitimised. She might have had a case if she had ordered the SNP to abstain on the grounds that such a referendum had not been formally endorsed by the Scottish Parliament. She did not. Therefore, countries like Poland have a choice to make; London or Edinburgh.

What struck me most about this visit is the deep and enduring human relationship between Britain and Poland. What rightly matters to Poles is the proper and respectful treatment of the up to one million Poles now living in mainly England. However, if Poland really wants to help a friend at this difficult time it could do so by recognising that it was the sheer scale and pace of inward migration that drove much of the Brexit vote. It was also the refusal of fellow Europeans to heed warnings about this.

Britain will not get access to the single market unless it upholds the principle of free movement. A huge swathe of British people will not accept a new deal with the EU unless and until some degree of pragmatic management of immigration is in place. Absolutism on either side right now will simply entrench already entrenched positions. It would be better for all of us to properly explore the possible, not retreat behind the barricades of the impossible.

So, the message from Warsaw?  Let’s all calm down, those trying to stir the pot cease and desist, and those responsible for moving us all forward…get a grip!  There will be a solution but together we must fashion it.

Julian Lindley-French    

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