Strategy

“So companies have to be very schizophrenic. On the one hand, they have to maintain continuity of strategy. But they also have to be good at continuously improving.” The words of management guru, Michael Porter. And although the analogy is far from perfect, countries are not wholly different from companies when it comes to strategy. Thus what to make of prime minister, Teresa May’s remarks, ahead of talk in Brussels in Monday, that the United Kingdom is ‘building a strategic partnership with Poland … that will outlast our exit” from the European Union.

The prime minister is meeting European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, as well as European Council president Donald Tusk, in the hope that sufficient progress can be agreed to have been made to allow next week’s EU summit to allow talks on the future trade relationship between the EU and the UK to begin. Talks between the British and Polish government area planned to take place in Warsaw on 21st December.

Mrs. May said the UK was “building a strategic partnership with Poland from a base of shared history and deep ties of friendship that will outlast our exit from the EU”. She added that Poland was important to the UK and that the countries’ partnership was “broad, vibrant and diverse and we both share a steadfast commitment to Europe’s security and defence”. “Following our last meeting we have British troops stationed in Poland, delivering part of NATO’s enhanced forward presence and signaling our determination to front up to aggression in the region, we work hand-in-hand across the foreign policy spectrum,” she added.

The prime minister also said that trade between Poland and the UK was “growing”. “In 2016, the UK was Poland’s second largest export destination and almost ten per cent of Polish food and agriculture exports end up in British shops,” she said. She also reiterated that ensuring EU-citizens’ rights in the UK and UK-citizens’ rights in the EU was her “first priority”. “The one million Polish citizens and 30,000 Polish businesses who have made a home in the UK have made a huge economic, social and cultural contribution to the fabric of our country… No EU citizen legally living in the UK needs to worry,” the prime minister said.

So far so good, but is no reflection on Poland to question whether this particular strategic partnership, supported as it appears on a shared history of relatively recent invention, in any way compensates for the strategic partnership that could, nay should, have been forged from the UK’s membership of the EU. Indeed, it could be argued that leaving the EU represents the biggest divergence ever from the strategy underpinning 500 years of foreign policy of not allowing a single united Europe to combine against British interests. While the UK remains in the EU this combination is not possible.

Of course the EU has many faults. Anybody familiar with British parliamentary democracy and the concept of democratic accountability must look askance at the EU arrangements. Indeed, it is this respect for democracy, and the instinctive belief that a vote of the electorate must be respected that is causing the prime minister and many like her who do not favour Brexit, to press on. That respect, at least, is something to be admired.

Be that as it may, nobody, Brexiteer or Remainer, can take much comfort from the current situation. Of course a deal will be done, but the UK will end up paying much for a worse deal that at present. Much better, would have been for successive governments to have adopted much more Machiavellian and Sir Humphreyesque approach towards the EU and to have gradually turned it in the direction that suited us, something which most of continental Europe believes the United Kingdom had achieved anyway.

In many ways the UK has been a model EU member state. It was one of only three EU member states not to impose transitional restrictions on Poles’ rights of free movement when Poland joined the EU, it has been large net contributor to EU funds and has the most open markets of any major member state. Perhaps it would have been better to have been less of a team player and to have adopted a more Polish approach – insist on your rights as an EU member state but oppose those rules you find inconvenient.

It is to everyone’s advantage that the UK and Poland enjoy close relations at every level, but it will require much more than a strategic partnership to replace what has been forgone elsewhere.

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