Keith Vaz – 2001 Speech on Britain and Poland

Below is the text of the speech made by Keith Vaz, the then Foreign Office Minister, on 31st January 2001 at the Polish Embassy in London.


Ambassador Komorowski, Excellencies, Distinguished Guests. I am delighted to have been invited to speak in this prestigious series of Europe lectures at the Polish Embassy, and to see so many friends of Poland present.

This series of lectures is one of the Embassy’s many contributions to deeper understanding between the UK and Poland. I would like to pay tribute to the energetic work of the Ambassador in representing Polish interests here. May I also pay tribute to the important contribution to the role of the vibrant Polish origin community in the UK.

The work of the Federation of Poles, the British-Polish Council and the British Polish Chamber of Commerce is crucial in ensuring that the tremendous new opportunities for cooperation opened up over the last ten years are acted on.


Poland and the UK are historic allies. The fine statue of General Sikorski which the Duke of Kent unveiled outside this Embassy last September commemorates Poland’s contribution to the allied victory in World War II. And the presentation of an Enigma machine by the Duke of York during his visit in September recalls the vital contribution which Polish intelligence experts made to the deciphering of the Enigma codes.

The UK is fully committed to the work of the Anglo-Polish Historical Committee set up last May to research Poland’s wartime intelligence contribution. Today we look confidently to the future both as NATO allies and future partners within the European Union. Tony Blair’s visit to Warsaw last October, and his landmark speech on the future of Europe, set the seal on a remarkably active year of Ministerial and other exchanges.

Bilateral trade increased by 25 per cent in 2000, and stands at over £2 billion. British investment in Poland is also expanding: Pilkington has for example recently announced the construction of a new plant, and Energis is investing £200 million in a joint venture with Polish Railways.


We have worked hard to ensure enlargement remains at the forefront of the EU’s priorities. Our efforts to ensure Poland and the other Central European candidates retake their rightful place at the centre of Europe are clearly bearing fruit. But enlargement is not a favour we are doing for Poland’s sake. It has very real benefits both for existing EU members as well as for the candidates.

First, it will finally reunite the continent after the divisions of the Cold War.

Second, it will create the world’s largest single market of some 500 million consumers, boosting both trade and jobs.

And third, it will help us tackle more effectively those shared problems – organised crime, drug smuggling, cross-border pollution – that countries cannot combat alone.

That is why the UK is a ‘champion of enlargement’. Indeed it was under the UK’s Presidency of the EU that negotiations with Poland and five other candidates began in 1998. We have continued to play a leading role since.

Enlargement is a massive topic. So today I would like to focus on two specific areas: prospects for the Swedish presidency and the increasing importance of public opinion.


We enter the Swedish Presidency on the back of a very long and very difficult, but ultimately very successful, Nice European Council.

Nice wasn’t easy. But the result was worth it. For the first time the candidates saw on one sheet of paper the number of Council votes they would have, and the number of seats in the European Parliament.

In short, Nice reached agreement on the institutional reforms necessary for enlargement, thus honouring the commitment made at Helsinki for the EU to be ready to accept new members from the end of 2002.

Just as important, Nice set us some targets.

First, echoing Tony Blair’s speech in Warsaw, EU leaders said they wanted to see new Member States participating in the 2004 European Parliamentary elections and the next IGC.

Second, the ‘road-map’ agreed makes possible the end of negotiations in 2002. To achieve this tough target, member states are committed to speeding up the pace of negotiations. But applicant countries including Poland must review their own negotiating strategies. Transition requests need to be reduced to the necessary minimum and accompanied by detailed implementation strategies.

2001 will be a crucial year for enlargement.

With the road-map in place we want to see a ‘step-change’ in negotiations – both in quality and quantity. And as Robin Cook called for in Budapest last July, we want to begin to solve the difficult issues, rather than only addressing them.

Enlargement is one of the ‘3 Es’ of the Swedish Presidency: Goran Persson has called for a ‘political breakthrough’. In Warsaw, Tony Blair did too. The UK will do whatever it can to help the Presidency achieve this.

Previous enlargements have been spurred on by the setting of a target date. Goran Persson has said that achieving this at Gothenburg is an aim for the Swedish presidency, providing that good progress has been made in negotiations. The UK supports this.

But progress in negotiations is only one side of the coin. Just as important is progress ‘on the ground’.

The Commission’s Progress Report last November showed how well Poland is doing in preparing for accession, particularly in moving towards meeting the Copenhagen economic criteria and in aligning legislation with the EU acquis.

I salute the progress that Poland and all the Central European candidates have made over the past ten years. We should not underestimate the extent of what has already been achieved.

Poland has already provisionally closed 13 of the chapters under negotiation with the EU, and is making good progress on others.

But clearly major challenges remain, particularly in the areas of agriculture, the environment, judicial and administrative reform, and justice and home affairs.

We want to see Poland in the first wave. But it is up to Poland to make sure that it is ready. As Tony Blair said in Warsaw, ‘there are no guaranteed places, reform is the only entry ticket’.


That is why the UK is backing up its political support for enlargement with practical action. During my visit to Poland in October 1999, I launched a UK-Poland Action Plan to help Poland prepare for EU accession.

Since then, we have launched a further six bilateral Action Plans with candidate countries, building on what the British Know-How Fund has already achieved. We will launch similar plans with the other candidates during the coming year.

The Plans bring together the UK’s pre-accession assistance in a coherent package, and involve the launch of some new projects.

In Poland’s case, a very successful local government is promoting closer links between British and Polish regions. And we are about to launch a new programme to share our experience of public diplomacy.

The UK has also won 18 EU financed twinning projects in Poland, as a result of which British experts are working alongside Polish counterparts in the agricultural, environment, customs and telecommunications fields.


But our cooperation goes much wider than this. There is for example much that Britain and Poland can do together in the foreign policy and defence fields.

We are already cooperating as close NATO allies in Kosovo and Bosnia. And the UK continues to support through practical assistance and training the full integration of Polish armed forces within NATO.

We have also worked hard to ensure the new European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP) is open towards our non-EU NATO partners such as Poland. The Nice European Council set out in detail how this will be achieved.

Like Poland we believe that an effective ESDP needs to be linked firmly within NATO. Effective crisis management will depend on the EU and NATO working closely together at all times and on a wide range of issues.

And Poland has a unique window on the East. We have a common interest in ensuring that EU enlargement does not create new dividing lines in Europe. We are for example working trilaterally with the Polish Know-How Foundation to advise the Ukraine on economic transition.

The FCO recently sponsored a successful trilateral conference in the Ukraine to consider some of the challenges from EU enlargement. We want to deepen triangular cooperation between the UK, Poland and her neighbours to the East.


But as much as we do to promote official contacts, we must not forget the importance of public opinion. Enlargement is not, and must never become, a ‘hobby-horse’ of the political classes.

Although Polish popular support for EU accession has fallen from some 80 per cent in the early 1990’s, it remains solid at around 55 to 60 per cent. The UK has been actively assisting the Polish government in explaining the benefits of EU membership.

But there is more to do. I therefore welcome the Commissioner’s planned communication strategy, and Poland’s internal EU promotion campaign.

At first glance popular support for enlargement within the EU seems lower. The November 2000 Euro-barometer records ‘average’ EU support at around 40 per cent.

I know that for some this is a concern. It need not be. The British people are not opposed to enlargement. I know this from my own experience.

When I became Minister for Europe in 1999, Tony Blair asked me to tour the country to explain the benefits of EU membership to people. I have now visited 32 cities. Not once has someone come up to me in Dudley or Edinburgh or Manchester and complained about EU enlargement.

The current level of public support is a result of lack of information rather than opposition. Enlargement is perceived as being as less central to people’s concerns. But this will change. Over the last year the government has been active in spreading awareness of enlargement:

We have produced a quarterly newsletter on enlargement and added new enlargement pages to the FCO’s website. We have produced a brochure for UK business on ‘enlargement and the single market’. On Europe Day, I opened the doors of the Foreign Office to the public where over 7,000 visitors viewed stands from all the candidate countries. We will build on these activities in 2001.

I have just returned from leading a UK Ministerial team visit to Prague following the success of a similar visit to Bratislava in November. I intend to visit Poland again very shortly.

I will also be hosting a reception in early March to bring together opinion formers from the candidate country communities in the UK in order to promote contacts and increase public awareness of enlargement.

The FCO will publish a new brochure explaining the benefits of enlargement, and develop a video/CD-ROM for use in libraries, universities and schools.

And Czech EU Minister, Pavel Telicka, has agreed to join me when I visit Cambridge as part of my EU roadshow. I hope that other Central European counterparts may be able to join me on future trips too.

All UK political parties support enlargement. So does British business. As the date for enlargement becomes close, and with greater information, I am certain that public support will rise too. A successful enlargement also needs people-to-people contact between current and future EU members.

There is much already. Poles work in London, British people holiday in Poland. But we need to do more. I want to see more Polish schools twinned with British schools and regular exchange programmes established. The enlarged European Union must be a union of peoples not only governments.


Ladies and gentlemen, Europe is standing on the brink of a new era.

I have no doubt that Poland will fit easily into the EU and contribute positively. I want to see negotiations concluded in 2002 and the first accessions – including Poland, and as many others as are ready – before the 2004 European Parliament elections.

With Nice completed, we have a great opportunity to make real and significant progress. We must take advantage of this.

Now the EU has agreed its internal reforms, Poland’s accession date is now in Polish hands. Huge efforts will be required, but the prize is great. And the UK stands ready to help in any way possible.