Poland's ambassador to Portugal wrote an opinion article for ECO News about the relationship between the two countries in the last decades.
If I wrote this article at the end of last year, it would be completely different. I would write about the continuing development of Luso-Polish relations, for which the key moment was the democratic opening and economic reform in Poland in 1989, and the accelerating factor in Poland’s accession to the European Union in May 2004. And in this way, we would reach today, in this continuous process of closer cooperation. The Covid-19 pandemic abruptly broke this process, becoming, not only for Poland and Portugal but also for all countries in the world, a new and important reference point. Therefore, it seems more appropriate to me to divide my considerations on our bilateral relations into three stages: before the pandemic, now, and after the pandemic.
When Poland freed itself from Soviet domination in the above-mentioned 1989, Portugal already had the first three years of a very positive experience as a member of the European Union. The local businessmen rightly identified that Poland was going to follow the same path, and the 3300 km distance between our capitals, Warsaw and Lisbon, for the Portuguese was never, in the past or today, a significant distance. As early as 1997 Jerónimo Martins bought the “Biedronka” chain, which at the time had 210 stores, developing it and reaching an unprecedented number of over 3,000 stores in more than 1,000 locations, hiring a total of 55,000 people. In 1998, BCP became involved in the banking sector in Poland and currently has a developed network of Millennium Polska bank, which is one of the leaders in home banking services, including mobile applications. Since 2007 EDP Renováveis has been operating in Poland, which mainly uses wind for energy production. Last year the company won two new contracts for the construction of offshore wind farms in the Baltic. Mota-Engil is a renowned manufacturer of roads (including motorways), bridges, railways and residential buildings. In addition to these, which are the largest, many other Portuguese companies also operate in Poland; I will mention only Eurocash, a wholesale supplier for smaller shops, Simoldes, the producer of synthetic moulds, and a company in the cosmetics sector: Colep.
Poland cannot show the same expansiveness on the Portuguese market because of the two important structural differences. First, during Soviet rule, private capital was of marginal significance and only began to develop after the transition in 1989. Secondly, Poland has 7 neighbours (including 3 from outside the EU: Ukraine, Belarus and the Russian Federation) and it was with these 7 countries that Poland mainly developed cooperation after the transition to a free-market economy. Only in recent years has the interest of Polish capital in the most distant European markets, including the Portuguese one, as well as in markets outside Europe, become visible. An example of Polish investment success can be Asseco, a globally operating IT company providing high-quality software and services, as well as Inglot, a chain of cosmetics stores. In the Portuguese market, the cosmetics producer Irena Eris and the Polish Stem Cell Bank are also successful.
Despite these differences, we must present the similarities between our countries. Poland and Portugal share the successes after joining the European Union. These are, on the one hand, a dynamic economic development, and, on the other, a spectacular improvement in infrastructure, including roads, achieved thanks to the support of the European Cohesion Fund, which has been used very efficiently in both countries. The common agricultural policy is also important for Poland and Portugal. It should be emphasised that it is precisely in these two areas that the mission of EU Commissioners has been entrusted to the representatives of our countries: for cohesion policy and reforms, Portuguese Commissioner Elisa Ferreira, for agriculture and rural development, Commissioner Janusz Wojciechowski. On the importance of the Cohesion Fund, within the Multiannual Financial Framework for the years 2021-27, a discussion was held during the Friends of Cohesion, organised by Prime Minister António Costa in Beja on 1 February this year. The Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, also participated in the Summit. Both the brief bilateral meeting and the interventions of both Prime Ministers showed how close our countries’ positions are in this area. It is also worth mentioning the visit to Lisbon on 7 February by Foreign Minister Prof. Jacek Czaputowicz and his meeting with the Portuguese Foreign Minister Prof. Augusto Santos Silva, who in turn has visited Poland three times in recent years.
Relations between Poland and Portugal are not just about economics and politics. The academic exchange is developing spectacularly, mainly within the framework of the Erasmus programme. Polish and Portuguese students are very fond of the partner country’s universities, and in recent years we have regularly had over a thousand students from each country. This is extremely valuable; thousands of young people every year are invaluable capital for the future, and even more intensive, strengthening of our relations. The two Erasmus National Agencies know this. Last year they supported the initiative of the Polish Embassy in Portugal and took part in organising a meeting, precisely at our Embassy, of Polish and Portuguese students.
The time has come to move from the reality of before the pandemic to the current situation. When our prime ministers met in Beja on 1 February, Prime Minister António Costa was scheduled to visit Poland in May. Unfortunately, the visit did not take place, as did many other plans. Our countries, and many others, have suffered from a recession. This is particularly painful both in Portugal and in Poland. In Portugal, it is mainly because of the tourist sector, whose share of national income is large, and which is likely to suffer major losses, including the fall in the number of tourists from Poland, which last year reached 300,000. Poland feels the recession strongly for another reason: the last recession took place in our country in 1991. During the last 29 years, including the 2007-09 crisis, the Polish economy after the reforms was facing all the threats, and during most years it grew dynamically. Today, the government implements new versions of the “anti-crisis shield” to minimize losses. Polish GDP is expected to fall by 3.5-4% by 2020. Before the pandemic, the major cities of our countries, 3 in Portugal and 6 in Poland, were linked with over 20 weekly flights. At the beginning of the pandemic, the Polish Airline LOT organised 3 charter flights, in which about 500 people returned from Portugal to Poland, and from Poland to Portugal about 140. TAP announces the return of the first flights to Warsaw in early August. In May the visit to Poland by Prime Minister António Costa was cancelled. Also in May the Polish and Portuguese Erasmus students’ meeting was going to take place in Warsaw, which was also not possible.
Businesses try to operate with minimal restrictions. During the pandemic, Mota-Engil already won a competition in Poland to build another section of a highway. The entrepreneurs do not give up and resort to unprecedented forms of action. An example of this innovation is a “virtual” wine tasting of Real Companhia Velha, organised on 28 May in Poland which, however, was not entirely virtual. Although proponents and tasters connected virtually via one of the videoconferencing platforms, real wines were tasted, as well as participants could buy them in Poland, together, at an attractive promotional price.
What will Luso-Polish cooperation look like after the pandemic? I cannot say when this will happen, but I can assure you with all conviction that it will return dynamically to normality. The largest Portuguese companies present in Poland have been operating in our market for a long time and know the reality of our country perfectly well. The construction sector returns to normal work, energy is obtained without interruption, the food sector meets our daily needs and, therefore, everything should quickly return to a normal pace of operation. Polish tourists, who value this country more and more, will also return to Portugal as soon as possible. However, it is necessary to point out here that after the crisis, portfolios will be visibly emptier and money will be spent much more carefully, which in turn will affect the banking sector. Last year, imports and exports between Poland and Portugal showed double-digit growth rates. This trend will unfortunately temporarily weaken. However, we hope that after the restoration of the usual freedom of contact, the Polish economy will recover quickly; an important factor in its development is not only dynamic exports but above all a consistently strong internal market.
The good development prospects for Portuguese companies I see, particularly, in three sectors. The Jerónimo Martins Group is for both our countries a guarantor of the development of exchanges in the agri-food sector, having a network of approximately 3,500 stores in Poland and Portugal in total. In this way it knows the agri-food market of both countries from the inside out, supplying not only its local stores but also exporting to the stores themselves at the other end of Europe. EDP Renováveis has waited patiently for a period of increased interest in renewable energy in Poland. There is no doubt that this moment has arrived and it will be possible to make the most of the excellent wind conditions, which is also an attractive offer for other Portuguese energy companies. And finally, the road infrastructure, which is growing strongly. Currently, the improvement of the road network is taking place throughout Poland, but two major international projects need to be mentioned here: the first – the Via Baltica which consists of an expansion of the Polish network from a new road to the border with Lithuania, from where it will continue through Latvia to Tallinn in Estonia; the second involves the Three Seas concept, the development of which is very promising, and which should guarantee 12 countries around the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea and the Adriatic Sea an integration of infrastructures, including roads. In Poland, this mainly means building a new highway along the eastern border.
The guarantee for the restoration of close economic cooperation between Poland and Portugal is also the Poland-Portugal Chamber of Commerce (PPCC) in Warsaw, and its relevant activity, which brings together Polish and Portuguese entrepreneurs, who have already started cooperation with a partner country or intend to do so. The Chamber fully understands that the interest of Polish entrepreneurs in Portugal concerns not only the market of this country but also the cooperation with the Portuguese in other Lusophone markets. The activity of the PPCC during the pandemic is impressive: it tirelessly reminds its members of the possibility of bilateral cooperation and reports on the state of restrictions. It is not surprising, therefore, that the PPCC was recognized twice as the best Portuguese chamber of commerce in the world, in 2014 and 2018.
Regarding the missed visit of Prime Minister António Costa in May to Poland, we hope that the conditions will allow it to take place as soon as possible, as time is pressing: on 1 January 2021, Portugal begins its Presidency of the Council of the European Union for six months, which is very important for all EU members. We hope that the sanitary conditions will allow it to take place without constraints. It is in the interests of the whole European family to make up for a lost time as quickly as possible.