We are expanding dialogue with Poland

"The United Kingdom and Poland have a close and historical relationship, regarded by the British as extremely important," says Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Co-Chairman of the Belvedere Forum, in an interview with Rzeczpospolita.

Rzeczpospolita: Theresa May and Beata Szydlo came out with the initiative to organize the Polish-British Civil Society Forum, which later became known as the Belvedere Forum. What is the purpose of this project? What do you hope to achieve?

Sir Malcolm Rifkind, Co-Chairman of the Belvedere Forum: The United Kingdom and Poland have a close and historical relationship, regarded by the British as extremely important. These relations were always very strong. Both our governments want them to become even stronger – with a truly strategic character. The first ever intergovernmental consultations, which took place in November, provide clear evidence of such intentions.

The Belvedere Forum is another step in the process of transforming our relationship from good into great. In the heart of a strong, strategic partnership lies a deep commitment at all levels of civil society. In our particular case, this commitment is carried out in a natural way thanks to the dynamic Polish community living in the United Kingdom. The Polish-British Belvedere Forum will help strength, structure and expand this dialogue, as well as shape closer cooperation between our societies at all levels. This will happen through annual meetings with a broad spectrum of participants from both sides, representing parliamentary circles, academia, think tanks, business, academia, non-governmental organizations, cultural institutions, the media and the Polish Diaspora. The purpose of the meeting will be the discussion and debate on key issues and to identify current areas where we can possibly intensify and enrich Polish-British cooperation.

Who defined the direction of the discussions at the Forum? Who decides on the main themes and programme, as well as the composition of the participants?

The strategic direction of the exchange has been developed by a joint Polish-British Steering Committee, which I co-chair together with Ryszard Czarnecki. The Committee consists of representatives of various communities and interest groups whose common denominator are strong Polish-British ties. This Committee is responsible for determining the programme and inviting participants.

Drawing inspiration from the dynamically changing reality, the Committee decided that this year's Forum will adopt a more long-term perspective, to look at our future bilateral relations - particularly how they might look in the year 2025. Considering that distant time horizon, it would be difficult to make specific predictions right now. However, having such a perspective, we want to embrace a wider view of the situation and try to identify future opportunities and threats. We hope that, given the many different points of view – coming from political circles, business, research and education, as well as very important national communities living in each of our two countries – we will be able to develop interesting and fresh ideas.

What personal motives led you to become involved in this venture?

I think that a well-organized, energetic civil society is the basis for strong and beneficial bilateral relations. I am therefore happy to be a part of this important initiative, and at the same time honoured to be the co-chairman. My enthusiasm stems in a certain sense from my personal attachment to Poland, because between 1982 and 1986 I was Minister for European Affairs in the British government and Polish-British relations were part of my portfolio at the time.  In this regard, I worked to support Poland in the process of its transformation into the free and successfully developing country that the Polish Republic is today. One visit in particular has become ingrained in my memory: it was in 1984, I came to Poland at a time of the murder of Father Jerzy Popieluszko. I remember the strong protest by representatives of the government of General Jaruzelski, when I placed a wreath on the grave of Father Popieluszko, and when I met with the leaders of Solidarity – who were then banned. For me, however, there was no doubt that this is how I should proceed.

Poland and Great Britain are connected by deep economic ties, especially since the giant wave of Polish immigrants came to the United Kingdom in 2004-2007. To what extent can the Forum help maintain these relationships despite the new situation that has been created as a result of Brexit?

Economic ties between our countries are in full bloom and are very important for both our countries. Business opportunities are not limited to the short term – they will continue to grow as vigorously in 2025 as they do today. This is the objective of the Belvedere Forum – to help those who are responsible for the dynamic business relationships, including representatives of the Polish diaspora in the UK - the diaspora, which has a significant contribution to the prosperity of our country. The Forum will be a place for exchange and debate on the opportunities and challenges. It will also be aimed at creating a positive business environment.

In a broader sense, the lively informal relationships that exist between us represent great potential for building the Polish-British strategic partnership. This is one of the reasons why the Steering Committee decided to focus this year's Forum on future bilateral relations in 2025. I will be very pleased and curious to hear views on how best to take advantage of these opportunities. I hope that the Forum will contribute to the strengthening of mutual personal relationships and that it will determine the shape of our future partnership between Poland and the United Kingdom.

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