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The Warsaw Voice » Other » November 19, 2008
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Working Together for a Cleaner Europe
November 19, 2008   
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Ric Todd, British ambassador to Poland, talks to Hilary Heuler.

What is the state of bilateral relations between London and Warsaw?
I think ambassadors always say how excellent relations are between their countries, but in the case of Britain and Poland it's really true. The first reason for this is simple history, including the influence that Britain and Poland have had on each other in the 20th century. There's been quite a strong Polish community in Britain since 1945. I went to a Catholic school, for instance, and many of my classmates were Polish. I knew what Poles did at Christmas when I was eight years old! The second reason is the fact that we are now jointly in the European Union and NATO, so there's a number of things we cooperate on from Afghanistan to EU issues like free movement of people and economic reform.

And the third reason is to do with Britain's 2003 decision that from 2004 our borders would be completely open to Central Europe and we would treat Central Europeans as equal partners in the Union. Unlike many other EU nations, who saw Poles and Slovaks as a threat and a problem, we saw them as our partners. Since then, the scale of the migration has been much greater than we expected, but it's been amazingly beneficial for both Britain and Poland and it's added a whole new dimension to relations. There are now so many Poles who work, have worked, or know people who work in Britain, and the other way around. There's simply so much more understanding and knowledge, and that has an effect in every sphere, from culture to sports to business. There are more British-Polish connections than there have ever been before, and on a very personal level.

Are there any areas where Britain's and Poland's positions on EU issues differ significantly?
There are lots of issues where we agree, particularly when it comes to economics-completing the single market and having an open Europe, for instance. We also agree when it comes to enlargement of the EU. But there are some issues where we don't have identical views at the moment, and one of them is the EU budget. We take the view that the budget now was designed 50 years ago for a different world, and it isn't right for the EU in the 21st century. We don't think we should be spending nearly half the budget on agriculture; we think we should concentrate money on helping poor rural areas to develop; we think the structural funds of the EU should be spent on new member states, not old ones; and we think the EU should spend much more of its budget on science and technology, on innovation, on energy, and on combating climate change, rather than on farmers and subsidies to essentially prosperous areas of the Union.

The Polish government doesn't share our views, but I'm not bothered by that because I'm sure the more we think about it and talk about it the closer our positions will become. The other thing that's important to remember is that Poland has been a significant beneficiary of EU money. Britain has been a net contributor to the EU every single year since we've been in the Union, and we're happy to carry on doing that, but it's important to remember that there's no such thing as European money-there's no european money tree where the commission goes and picks off euro notes. All the EU money spent in Poland or Slovakia is actually the money of taxpayers from about six countries, one of which is Britain. It's absolutely right that the poorer countries in the Union should have solidarity from the richer ones, but solidarity has to be on the basis of a mutual understanding. I'm sure that we can find that.

In which sectors of the economy are British-Polish ties the most intense?
When it comes to financial policy, for example, dealing with the recent financial crisis-the British and Polish positions are similar in that we don't believe the solution is to try to restrict flows of trade or capital, or to over-regulate the financial sector. In terms of trade and investment, Britain is a significant investor in Poland-about 6th or 7th-and trade between the two countries is now around 7 billion euros a year. It's actually quite advanced trade, in that there is no one particular thing that dominates either exports or imports. They range from engineering products through to furniture, plastics and tomatoes.

How important are immigrant Poles to the British economy?
Poles are the largest single group of Central Europeans to immigrate since 2004, and almost all have gone in order to integrate, to work, and to become part of society. They've done that, they've integrated, but they've also kept their own identity in terms of culture, churches and food. It's been a very successful example of how a free labour market works. Poles have also contributed a lot to the British economy and added to our economic growth by helping to reduce inflationary pressures and acting as an incentive to the British labour market to become better. They've actually encouraged the British to compete a bit harder in their own labour market.

Now, the economic situation has changed. Four years ago there were seven zlotys to the pound, now it's four and a bit, so the economic incentives for Poles to go to work in Britain are gone in some ways. However, Britain remains a very attractive labour market, and Poles want to go to Britain not just for the money but also for the experience, to learn the language, and simply to take advantage of the opportunities there are now in Europe. And Poles are coming back to Poland bringing things they've learned, as well as a better understanding of Britain and an interest in carrying on human contacts and business. We can see that both Poland and Britain have benefitted from having an open economy and a free labour market.

What is the British government doing to raise public awareness on issues like climate change and energy conservation?
The debate on climate change and energy is different in Britain than it is in Poland. I think in Britain there is acceptance across the whole political spectrum and among the general public that climate change is a serious issue, and that the country needs to do something about it. In Poland the debate hasn't got quite so far, in the sense that people here see efforts to tackle climate change as a threat, as something that will damage Poland and that Poland must fight off-like an attack from outside.

I think we see it slightly differently. We see that human activity is going to create a very big problem in the next few decades, and therefore Europe, as one of the strongest economic regions in the world, needs to take action on this. But changing your economy to a low-carbon economy actually creates enormous opportunities for a country, not just threats and problems. You need to think not just about how much you pay for your energy, but how much energy you use. So one important thing the British government is trying to do is to help make a transition from a high carbon-use economy-an economy based on the fact that energy is cheap-to an economy based on less carbon, and a recognition that energy is an expensive resource that you need to try to save.

There's a lot of interest in Britain, and the government is helping every person use less energy. This is beneficial for them, because energy's expensive, and it's beneficial for the economy as a whole and for the climate as a whole. It's important that people shouldn't think they are powerless in this situation. We've established the Energy Saving Trust, which is about giving assistance to households in cutting their energy bills, as well as the Carbon Trust aimed at helping businesses use less energy.

What is the general public response to these problems?
There is higher public awareness in Britain than in Poland regarding climate change, but we understand that Poland has a specific set of issues related to energy and its dependence on coal; 96 percent of Poland's energy comes from coal, though it's important to add that Poland is now a net importer of coal. Now this is a country that has a lot of coal stocks, therefore coal is always going to need to be an important part of Poland's energy mix, especially in the short to medium term. But the only way to tackle climate change on a global level is to find ways of generating electricity from coal that are much less damaging to the environment. The answer lies in cleaner technology, and in carbon capture and storage. In that sense there is a significant opportunity for Poland to use assistance from the EU to modernize the Polish energy sector and make it cleaner.

Is Britain working with Poland on these issues?
We have a number of projects in Poland. We have a specialist team working on climate change in the embassy, and we're working with the government, NGOs, businesses and the media to try to debate the issues and to try to help shift Poland to a low-carbon economy. An element of that is the negotiations going on at the moment regarding the EU's 2020 package due to be decided in December. Both Britain and Poland agree that the package is important, and Poland, like Britain, has agreed to the objectives at the last European Council. So there's no difference in principle, but there are a number of issues that the Polish government feels it needs to have addressed before consensus can be found.

And you need consensus not only among governments, but among people. Ordinary citizens have to be convinced that climate change is being combated in a way that's fair to consumers, businesses and taxpayers. We understand that, and we are very happy to work with our Polish partners to get there.
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