Minding the gap

There is a certain thrill to witness history in the making, admits historian Arkady Rzegocki, Poland’s Ambassador to London who arrived weeks after Britain voted to leave the European Union.

As a political scientist, whose specialist area is Polish and English political thought, Rzegocki has been fascinated by the legal machinations of the Supreme Court over the triggering of Article 50 – but as a diplomat (and anglophile), he has been watching Britain’s slow-motion decoupling from the EU with a heavy heart.

In particular, he has been saddened by the rise in racist abuse the Polish community has suffered following the Brexit vote, a phenomenon that the Ambassador attributes to a “lack of knowledge” between the British public and its Polish community, something he is determined to remedy.

But the Ambassador has also been heartened by the swift response by the British authorities and the “huge support” from the British public, politicians and NGOs to clamp down on hate crime.

Uncertainties over the future status of EU migrants post-Brexit has caused further anxiety in the Polish diaspora, now the largest minority in Britain: “This is a difficult time for individuals, families and for the 30,000 businesses that Poles have set up in the UK in the past 12 years. It is difficult to plan ahead if you are not sure where you will be in the next few years,” he says.

New territory
For now, he and his fellow EU colleagues are in a “waiting game” he says. “This is new territory for everybody – at the moment we have politicians saying one thing and other politicians contradicting it so we are waiting for Britain’s notification of Article 50 and the British negotiation position.”

Broadly speaking, the Ambassador says his country is seeking “as strong links to the UK economy as possible” particularly in the areas of science and innovation. “There is huge potential. My dream is that even more British companies will invest in Poland,” he says, adding that British businesses, impressed with the skills and work ethic they have encountered by the Polish workforce here in the UK, may be encouraged to set up their EU base in Poland.

For Poles, free movement of labour is almost sacrosanct, he says, recalling the communist times when foreign travel was barred. “We were the first country in the Soviet Bloc to get our passports. I took my bicycle with my friends and we rode to Vienna and it was wonderful.”

As an academic from the prestigious Jagiellonian University, Rzegocki is eager for UK institutions to remain part of the EU research programmes and student exchanges, such as Erasmus and Horizon 2020.

On defence, NATO remains the cornerstone of the relationship, says the Ambassador, who hopes Poland can rely on Britain’s continued support, particularly against Russian expansionism in Ukraine and the EU’s eastern neighbourhood. Unsettling statements about America’s commitments to NATO from President-elect Donald Trump have prompted Europe to reassess its defence spending. But any enhanced EU capabilities are likely to “complement” rather than compete with NATO, he adds.

Brexit has prompted some soul-searching among EU members about the rise of populist anti-establishment movements on the continent, reflects the Ambassador. “We are facing geopolitical challenges and our societies are divided – we see this in Poland, in Britain, in the US and elsewhere. The most important thing is that we should respect democracy, which is what Britain is doing after the referendum. It’s difficult but it’s an important lesson for all of us.”

So while Brexit will continue to be a pre-occupation, the Ambassador sees his job as “bridging the knowledge gap” that grew between Britain and Poland during the Cold War.

Tradition of liberty
The two nations have a long tradition of liberty – they were allies during WWII, when Britain became a second home to thousands of refugees and the Polish Government-in-exile, which remained operational throughout the communist period. The presidential seal, constitution and other symbols of state were returned to Poland upon the restoration of democracy in 1990.

The Solidarity Movement of the 1980s drew on the centuries-long Polish and British traditions of standing up to tyranny, he says. From the 13th century English Magna Carta to Poland’s 16th century ‘Golden Freedoms’ both nations have had parliaments of noblemen reining in the power of their monarchs.

The multi-ethnic Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea was at the peak of its powers during the Elizabethan age and there are a number of references to Poland in Shakespeare’s plays, the Ambassador points out. The longwinded courtier, Polonius, in Hamlet is thought to be based on the Ambassador’s distant predecessor, infamous for being reprimanded by Elizabeth I when he presented his credentials. (Fortunately, Ambassador Rzegocki’s audience with Elizabeth II was much better – an “unforgettable moment,” he says).

So while working behind the scenes while the stage is being set for Brexit, the Ambassador and his wife Jolanta (a theatre historian) will take time to visit theatres up and down the land. And whether Brexit will be a Tempest or Much Ado About Nothing, Ambassador Rzegocki is hoping All’s Well That Ends Well.

Embassy Editor Elizabeth Stewart interviewed the Ambassador of Poland on 14 November