Mr. President and Madame Kaczynska, Ladies and Gentlemen, I cannot tell you how delighted I was by your invitation, Mr. President, for my wife and myself to spend a few days in your marvellous country with which my own has such special links.
Two years ago we were able to spend a day in Krakow in order to open a new Jewish Community Centre, the plans for which I had initiated after my visit to Kazimierz some eight years ago. Indeed, through various charities and organizations of which I have been Patron or President, including my Youth Business International and the Business Leaders Forum, I have been closely involved with Poland for the better part of two decades.
So I was particularly keen to do what little I could to help your country after the collapse of communism, having for so long held a combination of profound admiration and heartfelt sympathy for the appalling suffering of the Polish people.
Mr. President, we were keen to return to Poland because your country occupies a unique place in the hearts of British people. Our common roots are very deep. When the half-Polish King of Denmark, Canute, invaded Britain in 1014, the cavalry he brought with him were Polish. Indeed Canute’s Polish mother is buried in England, beneath Winchester Cathedral. To this day British children are raised on stories of our two countries standing side by side, often in the face of seemingly incredible odds. We learn at school for instance about the Polish pilots who fought with us during the Battle of Britain in 1940; about the heroism of Polish soldiers at Monte Cassino and Arnhem; and about the crucial role of Polish Intelligence mathematicians and cryptographers in cracking the German Enigma codes. More recently, in the 1980s, Britain opened her doors - and her heart - to Poles who were given exceptional leave to remain in the United Kingdom when Martial Law was declared in Poland.
So these ties bind us closely, Mr. President. And they are not confined to history. Our relationship is, and has always been, a “two-way street.”
As my wife and I saw when we spent a wonderful afternoon with the Polish diaspora community in London a couple of weeks ago, Poles make a vital contribution to modern British society and are present in almost every walk of life. Culture, I know, plays an important unifying role and in this year in which you celebrate the bicentenary of Chopin’s birth we are so pleased to be able to experience the genius of the great Polish composer once again during a concert at Chopin University. And this will be even more special bearing in mind that my Great Great Great Grandmother, Queen Victoria, actually heard Chopin play!
But Mr. President, since 1999 Britain and Poland have been partners in N.A.T.O. Our military co-operation has never been more important than now, as we work together to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan. For that reason we are so pleased and proud to be able to visit the Polish troops who are about to deploy to Afghanistan and to spend time with the First Armoured Brigade at Wesola on Wednesday. As the father of two serving officers, one of whom has himself served in Afghanistan, I perhaps have some understanding of the immense challenges faced by the families of those serving in military operations overseas.
Since 2004 we have also been partners in the European Union. This brings our two countries into the closest possible co-operation on an extraordinary range of issues which touch the lives of literally each and every one of Europe’s 500 million citizens. Perhaps the most important of those issues - since it bears not only on our present but the very nature of our future – is climate change. After many years spent trying to draw attention to this huge threat – and the opportunities that come from dealing with it – it is perhaps not surprising that many of my engagements here in Poland are linked to this vital challenge. Having been asked to address the Opening of the High Level Segment of the Copenhagen Climate Summit last December, I emphasized that, however much we may prefer to bury our heads in the sand, the climate crisis is real and it is happening now.
On top of that our global fisheries face collapse by 2050; the fresh water on which all human life depends is becoming scarcer; over the last fifty years we have degraded thirty per cent of global topsoil and destroyed thirty per cent of the world’s rainforests. All of these issues are linked to each other and to climate change - a truly vicious circle – and the climate crisis is the mirror in which we see reflected the combined ecological impact of our industrialized age… But just as we had the power to push the world to the brink so, too, do we have the power to bring it back into balance.
Thank you again, Mr. President, for the warmth and generosity of your hospitality this evening. It gives me great pleasure to propose a toast to the President, his wife, and all of the Polish people.
Na zdrowie (to your health).