Ambassador of Poland Arkady Rzegocki writes on the 100th anniversary of the renewal of Polish-British diplomatic relations
2019 is a special year. It marks the 250th anniversary of the establishment of Poland’s permanent diplomatic presence in the UK and the 100th anniversary of re-establishing Polish-British diplomatic relations, giving us an opportunity to celebrate our common history, culture and strong bonds. For we are allies who have stood together against common threats over the years and face the challenges of the modern day side-by-side.
Anglo-Polish relations, however, date back much further. The first tentative contacts were made in the eleventh century during the reigns of King Ethelred II the Unready and Bolesław I the Brave. For many centuries, commerce and trade remained the mainstay of relations between the two kingdoms. It was not until the fifteenth century that greater political considerations began to play an important role. Monarchs on both sides would send their envoys to meet each other, usually to deal with specific ad hoc matters rather than maintain constant bilateral relations.
From the seventeenth century onwards, there was an increase in continuous diplomatic contacts, especially from the English and then British side, with semi-permanent and permanent representatives being appointed, while envoys with the rank of ambassador would be sent in the event of special missions. Despite the lack of a permanent resident envoy in London, diplomatic contacts were also maintained on the Polish side.
Finally, in 1769, the first permanent diplomatic presence of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth – once the largest and one of the most populous and ethnically-diverse states in Europe – was set up in London. The beginnings of the mission coincided with a difficult time of partitions of Poland by three absolutist monarchies of Russia, Prussia and Austria, which lasted for 123 years. Even so, close Polish-British relations maintained by the last King of the Commonwealth, Stanisław August Poniatowski, saw Britain react extremely fast to the founding of Poland’s Constitution of 3 May 1791 – Europe’s first and the world’s second democratic constitution – with the document being translated into English almost immediately after proclamation, owing to the then Ambassador of Poland to Britain, Franciszek Bukaty. The British newspapers broke the news on 20 May. Outstanding thinker and Whig politician Edmund Burke even praised the Polish constitutional act. All this showed the great significance of the document for European heritage, and we were honoured to celebrate this achievement together with our Lithuanian and British friends at Lancaster House in May.
After the restoration of Poland’s independence in 1918 – an anniversary that we celebrated enthusiastically last year – our relations began to flourish. Britain acknowledged the restoration of Poland’s independence on 26 February 1919. On that day, Sir Esme Howard, Civil Delegate on the International Commission to Poland, wrote to Józef Piłsudski, Chief of the Polish State: “His Britannic Majesty’s Government acknowledged Poland’s restoration to independence,” adding, “this was the most honourable and agreeable message I had ever had to give in my life.” And it was on 15 July 1919 that diplomatic relations between the UK and Poland were officially renewed, with Prince Eustachy Sapieha becoming the first official envoy of independent Poland in London, while Percy Wyndham became the UK’s Minister Plenipotentiary in Poland.
The spirit of camaraderie formed between the officials from our two nations spread to the theatre of World War II. When some of the Polish Armed Forces arrived in the UK from their occupied homeland, our peoples found themselves fighting together in the Battle of Britain, which turned the tide of the war. The Polish 303 Squadron, serving under British command, became the most effective unit in the battle, and almost 20,000 Polish airmen and airwomen served in 15 Polish Air Force squadrons in Britain. Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, who led Fighter Command, wrote: “Had it not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of the Battle would have been the same.”
Our shared war achievements extend to working together on breaking the Enigma code. Polish mathematicians cracked it first in 1932 and passed on their work to Alan Turing and the Brits, which laid the foundations for the mass-scale codebreaking effort of Bletchley Park. In a book released last year, Sir Dermot Turing admits that without the accomplishments of the Polish codebreakers, the work of his famous cryptologist uncle Alan Turing would have been considerably slowed down – if not impossible.
Though it suffered from lack of recognition when the communist regime was imposed, thanks to Britain’s hospitality, the legitimate Polish state representation survived the war, and many Polish émigrés remained in the UK after the war.
December 1990 ushered in a new era for our relations. After 45 years of Soviet control, Poland for the second time in 72 years fully regained its independence and sovereignty. After communism fell, Poland joined NATO and the European Union, signing bilateral defence deals with the UK – including the 2017 treaty, only the second such treaty that the UK has with an EU member state – as well as serving together in military missions in Iraqand Afghanistan, and observing mutual freedom of movement of our peoples. The UK was also the first country that opened its market to the Polish workers as soon as we joined the union. There are now almost one million Poles living in the UK.
Thought not always officially mutually recognised, there is no doubt that the centuries-old diplomatic relations and tradition of understanding and cooperation between our two nations have been strong – and can only get stronger. To facilitate this, each year we host intergovernmental consultations between our prime ministers and top ministers, the quadriga consultations of foreign and defence ministers, bilateral ministerial meetings, and the civic society Belvedere Forum. We cooperate closely on a range of issues, from supporting peace efforts in Ukraineto tackling modern-day slavery, helped by Poland’s membership of the UN Security Council in 2018-2019. It is especially vital in the wake of Brexit that we continue to work together to ensure a peaceful, just coexistence and world, respecting larger international interests as well as individual national interests. It is my hope that observing the grand anniversaries like this one will help us to do that.