by Kristofer Jäntti, Anna-Cara Keim and Mateusz Zatonski
The intermittently freezing and boiling Old Theatre (some panellists joked about ‘British-style austerity’) welcomed a wealth of delegates to the London School of Economics Polish Economic and Business Forum. It was only for the second time that this event, organised by the students of the LSE SU Polish Business Society, Oxford University Polish Society, and Cambridge University Polish Society, was held. The agenda of the Forum impressed with the number of eminent guests and speakers invited. These included the former Polish Prime Minister and Minister of Economy Waldemar Pawlak, the Polish Ambassador to the UK Witold Sobków, and a number of high-profile journalists, businessmen, and economists from Poland and Great Britain. The main theme of this year’s Forum was ‘Poland – a green island on a rough sea?’ The turnout was impressive; about 400 students from British and Polish universities as well as other interested individuals had flocked together for the occasion.
The opening speakers, Witold Sobków and Waldemar Pawlak, had no qualms about answering this question in the affirmative. The Polish Ambassador talked about the ‘Polish success story’, and Pawlak even went as far as suggesting that in a two-speed Europe, the second-speed countries such as Poland are taking over the Western part of Europe. The former Prime Minister suggested that the strength of the Polish economy is a result of a combination of factors as diverse as an active civil society, an innovative private sector, smart government regulation, and even the inspiring effect of the Catholic Church. A symbol of the Polish success in the last decades, mentioned by a number of panellists, were Poland’s trade relations with Germany, whose level in 2008 exceeded German-Russian trade, and today are threefold higher than the latter. As the only politician at the event he did not fail to make some witty remarks about his own profession: ‘Contrary to popular belief, the oldest profession in the world is being a politician. After all, God created the world out of chaos. But who created the chaos – politicians!’
As the politicians and diplomats were replaced on the stage of the Old Theatre by economists and businessmen, the picture painted by the panellists became decisively less rosy. The experts asserted some of the key strengths of the Polish economy – a big market, strong domestic consumption, a well-educated and entrepreneurial workforce, political stability, and a low reliance on exports in the wake of a global economic crisis. However, they had even more to say on its weaknesses. Maja Goettig, the Chief Economist at KBC Securities, stressed Poland’s abysmal performance in various rankings gauging economic competitiveness, the government’s low research and development spending, the huge burden of government regulation, and a communication infrastructure in need of serious improvement (this last point was repeated by a number of speakers). Jacek Wiśniewski, the Managing Director of Raiffeisen Brokers pointed out that most of the shortcomings of Polish competitiveness could only be addressed by major legislative changes. Matthew Strassberg from Mid Europa Partners and Krzysztof Kulig from Innova Capital drew attention to the fact that Poland is increasingly losing its status as the ‘flavour of the month’ for foreign investments to South America and Asia. The latter also suggested that the future of Polish innovation might lie in highly specialised, unbranded technological products, and filling the existing niches, rather than in hoping for a Polish I-Pad. However, throughout the entire panel there was little agreement to be found between Goettig and Wiśniewski, indeed the debate on intervention vs. deregulation became so heated that the delegates even decided to opt for a shorter coffee break.
Arguably the high point of the Forum was the panel composed of Jarosław Dmowski from the Boston Consulting Group, Edward Lucas from The Economist, and Mateusz Morawiecki from BZ WBK, and chaired by the Deputy Editor-In-Chief of the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, Jakub Kurasz. The speakers addressed the question of whether the quality of life in Poland was improving. Their fascinating insights on the relation between economic growth and happiness ranged from Mr Dmowski’s quantitative efforts to place the well-being of Poles relative to their neighbours, to Mr Lucas’ suggestion that Poland should learn to boast about its success story and throw its considerable diplomatic weight around more. Mr Morawiecki conducted an absorbing analysis of the dramatic disillusionment many Poles went through in the early 1990s, when they realised that democracy does not equal prosperity for all. Finally, asked about his own personal definition of happiness, Mr Lucas replied, adding a humanist’s perspective to the discussion – ‘maximising the happiness of those around you.’
The afternoon was dominated by shale gas. The keynote speaker was Grazyna Piotrowska-Oliwa, the CEO of PGNiG. Poland is believed to have some of the biggest shale gas resources in Europe but its exploitation is highly controversial and costly. Poland’s strict environmental laws and expensive technology that needs to be imported from the U.S. present the biggest obstacles. Nevertheless, it is regarded as a valuable investment since it would bring independence from Gazprom in the long run. Needless to say that Piotrowska-Oliwa encountered a number of criticisms from the audience.
She also used her time on stage to advise young graduates and students on ‘how to become someone’. Her recipe for professional success in Poland was to acquire a very specific skill set and ‘always think three steps ahead’.
The Forum drew predominantly positive opinions from those participants we talked with. Some of them travelled to the Forum from as far as Poland. ‘The main magnet were the big names on the Forum agenda’, we were told by a professional from Warsaw, ‘They are truly on the cutting-edge of their disciplines and they are people worth listening to.’ However, others pointed out areas needing improvement. The underwhelming number of female panellists was one frequent concern mentioned amongst others by delegate Paulina Nesta from SSEES. The other was a scarcity of speakers from outside the business and economics fields, such as scientists, academics, or policymakers (with the honourable exception of the keynote speaker). This was peculiar in a forum that stressed the importance of interdisciplinary collaboration, research and development in boosting Polish competitiveness. This was pointed out to Crossing the Baltic by Maja Lukomska, student at University College London.
Overall, one must say that the organisers have managed to stage a truly impressive event. Yet, unlike comparable events that have recently taken place at the London School of Economics and Political Science it seemed to be almost exclusively aimed at a Polish audience – despite all talks being held in English. The numbers of non-natives at the Forum were far and few between but all of them claimed that an interest in Poland and Polish economy is not necessarily confined to Polish nationals only. Nevertheless, we hope that we can look forward to a similar event next year.