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The Warsaw Voice » Other » March 28, 2007
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Similarities and Opportunities
March 28, 2007   
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Alan Arthur Stretton, honorary consul of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, talks with Jarosław Szymonowicz.

The tradition of Polish-British cooperation in Silesia dates far back. John Baildon was probably the best known Briton who came to Silesia...
I think this tradition was not as deeply rooted and British presence in Silesia not as strong as that of other nations. The reason was the British policy of that time, a policy determined by the fact that the empire had dominions in all parts of the world. Britain was focused on itself and it's empire and the British did not see any need to invest in continental Europe.

One should also remember the enormous differences in the legal system and state organization. At that time, Europe followed the Napoleonic system, while Britain adhered to its own well-tried model. Actually, direct contacts did not take place until the end of the Napoleonic wars. One of the first Britons in Silesia was John Baildon, who arrived here at the invitation of the Prussian government.

It seems that Britain and Poland traveled the same route during the period of post-industrial transformation.
Indeed, these processes were similar in the two countries, though not identical. This was particularly visible in the mining and steel sectors. In Britain, the transformation model pursued by Margaret Thatcher's government differed from that carried out in other European countries in that Britain gave up state interventionism. As a result, only those companies which were able to cope under the new conditions survived on the market. An interesting example is the automotive industry. In Britain, this sector of the economy is faring very well now, manufacturing more cars than it did before the reform. However, car factories today have foreign, mainly Japanese, owners.

Many of Prime Minister Thatcher's reforms aroused criticism. How, in this context, do you perceive the changes taking place in Poland, particularly in Silesia?
One has to admit that reforms involve some very difficult moves that can always be criticized, regardless of the country. Compared to Poland, British reforms were deeper and much more aggressive. However, it should be stressed that they never affected ordinary people as strongly as Polish reforms did. High unemployment is one of the most dangerous consequences of Polish transformation. In Britain, the number of jobless people was never as high, not even in the most difficult period. On the other hand, one can clearly see that Poland has been coping increasingly well with these problems.

After Poland entered the EU, cooperation between our countries expanded to enter completely new areas. The economic emigration of Poles to Britain has attracted particular attention...
Much has changed since Poland joined the European Union in 2004. One of the changes is the opening of the labor markets. Many Poles work in Britain today, and this is a typical win-win situation. Both the Polish people and Britain benefit from it. This is a successful arrangement for both sides. However, the outflow of so many specialists may become a major barrier to Poland's further development. This problem is already evident in Silesia.

And how do the British benefit?
Thanks to economic emigration, Britons are gradually opening to Poles, Czechs and other nations from new EU member countries. This is important because the residents of the British Isles still have a mental barrier and a sense of being different from Europe, being separated from the rest of the continent by the English Channel.

Poles are not the only nation working in Britain. [French presidential candidate] Nicolas Sarkozy has recently started his presidential campaign in London-he was chasing the votes of the estimated 300,000-500,000 French people work in Britain.

What are the differences between the British Isles and the rest of Europe?
I have already mentioned the diametrically opposed legal systems that were shaped under completely different traditions and historical conditions. The German and French systems are based on centralism and bureaucracy. They are rigid, and this generates specific systemic limitations. Compared with them, the British system is much simpler and more flexible, also for ordinary people. Having said that, I should point out that things are changing. The UK authorities have issued more new legislation in past 15 years (to comply with EU requirements) than in the previous 200 years!

This also concerns the economic sphere, particularly following Thatcher's reforms, which thoroughly changed the British economy. The economy is free from state interventionism, while simplified procedures and the removal of barriers have made life easier for entrepreneurs. Looking from this perspective, I can see that Poland's main problem is that some solutions are patterned too much on the French and German models. It would be good to change that because the lack of flexibility is now one of the greatest barriers to competitiveness.

How, in this context, can one assess cooperation with Silesia province? The region is proud of having a friendly climate for investors.
For me, Silesia is definitely the best place in Poland. I was born in Birmingham, which 80 years ago looked like Silesian cities. Additionally, I am an engineer so I feel at home in such a similar, industrial region.

But there are also other reasons behind this assessment. I have talked to many business people and, judging by that, I think that Silesia is the most practical and pragmatic region. I have noticed that other Polish regions are not as open; one can even see a certain measure of arrogance there.

Silesia still has many problems. One of them is its quite poor image. But recent years have seen enormous progress. The favorable results and benefits of reform measures are already noticeable. A very valuable advantage of Silesia is its location on the Cracow-Wrocław transport route, which runs across the region. When analyzing new investment projects one can see that sites along this line are preferred by investors. This shows that the North South A1 freeway a will contribute to faster development and stimulation of these areas as well. Pyrzowice airport also plays a very important role. Thanks to the airport, one does not need to travel via Warsaw but go directly to a selected place in Europe. This is very important for investors.

What are the main problems in Polish-British cooperation?
Since 2004 I have noticed an increased interest in Poland on the part of small and medium-sized businesses. British companies want to do business here and already have some insight into the market thanks to their experience with Poles working in Britain. Poles are regarded as good and reliable workers. They are accepted and if someone is looking for a good construction worker they want to employ a Pole. This is another difference compared to France, which was so afraid of the "Polish plumber." In this respect, there are no mutual barriers.

Barriers created by differences in the legal system are much more difficult to overcome. For a Frenchman or German these differences are slight, in many cases unnoticeable. But for a Briton, contact with Polish institutions and bureaucracy is a real shock. In Britain, one can start a business online within 15 minutes, while in Poland this is much more difficult. British investors do not know how to move around in the maze of forms, stamps and certificates.

They do not understand why they are required to present the same documents many times, each copy confirmed by a lawyer, and why the documents have to go through translators and ministry departments.

To sum up, procedures in public offices are incomprehensible, slow and ineffective. All this takes time, generates considerable costs and consequently has an adverse impact on competitiveness. I have assisted British companies for 15 years now. My main task is to help them understand the system and guide them through the Polish bureaucracy.

To be successful, one has to precisely identify the needs of partners and have knowledge about the country where one does business. Where can Silesian business people interested in economic cooperation with Britain obtain the information they need? What are the main obstacles faced by Poles who want to operate in Britain?
While planning business operations, one has to take into account the specific tradition and determinants of the British system. But despite the differences, the system is much simpler and easier to adapt to.

Lawyers, engineers, physicians and representatives of other trades and professions are united in very strong and efficient guild organizations.

The internet is now the fastest way to acquire information. This means that time and space barriers have practically ceased to exist. But an abundance of information does not always make one's work easier. One has to make selections and extract the most important things from a stream of data. In Britain, the most comprehensive source of information needed by businesses are the Companies House web pages. Within several minutes one can get full information there about a given company, together with documents, statements and reports. The cost is only 1 pound. One can say that if a partner is found in these web pages their credibility is guaranteed. And vice versa: if the web pages do not contain any information about a partner, increased caution is needed. It is also worth using the services of specialist consulting firms and other institutions established for this purpose.

How many British companies have invested in Silesia?
It is very difficult to answer this question. No such statistics are available. Companies operate through complex networks of subsidiaries, and there are frequent changes in ownership and location.

The British government does not monitor emigration and does not try to limit it. The number of British nationals living outside Britain is estimated at 15 million. We do not know how many of them live in Poland.

While it is easier to meet Britons in Warsaw, they can also be found in Silesia. This is a large and densely populated region so many of us live next door but do not even know each other.

Many Poles work in Britain today, and this is a typical win-win situation. This is a successful arrangement for both sides. However, the outflow of so many specialists may become a major barrier to Poland's further development. This problem is already evident in Silesia.
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