“I will represent all European citizens in London, firstly the British but also Poles, French Spaniards, etc,” Poland’s ex-finance minister Jan Rostowski said as he announced he was standing as a London candidate in the upcoming European elections. His Change UK – The Independent Group is an anti-Brexit party founded a mere two months ago by ex-Labour and ex-Conservative MPs.
His aim is to force a second EU referendum as part of the political group which calls itself the “Remain alliance.” He believes the EU referendum in 2016 will lead “the collapse of the present party political system” in Britain, and worries that the space it is creating could be filled by people like Nigel Farage. “If the party political system is going to collapse, you want it to collapse in a good way rather than a bad way.”
The party has faced several controversies since it announced its candidates for the European elections, like other new parties. Two candidates have been forced to withdraw from the race for comments alleged to be racist.
And Rostowski, who was born and raised in the UK, but served as Polish Deputy Prime Minister and the country’s finance minister under Donald Tusk, has faced questions an interview from 2011 in which he said “a stable society is based on heterosexual relations” and stated his opposition to gay marriage.
We caught up with him in Warsaw.
1. What is the reasoning behind your decision to run for election in London?
Rostowski: The aim is to stop Brexit, which will be very, very bad for Britain and bad for Europe. It will also be very bad for the 3.2 million EU citizens who live in Britain, some 200,000 of whom are Italians and 1 million are Poles. The British government has promised that their rights will be guaranteed, but that will only apply to those whom the government accepts are living in Britain. It’s enough to go onto the Home Office website to see that proving that you live in Britain will often be difficult for those who absolutely genuinely do. A frightening case is the Deputy Director of Ofsted, the state education watchdog, who is an EU citizen. Given his job, he’s a competent bureaucrat, knows all about filling in forms and providing the necessary evidence. Yet his application was refused. You can imagine the difficulty for ordinary Italians or Poles living in Britain. The only way for EU citizens to avoid this nightmare, is to vote to stop Brexit. In these European elections they have the right to vote IN BRITAIN, and if they decide to, I would appeal to them to vote for Change UK, which is the most pro-European and anti-Brexit of all the parties. Of course, if they want to vote in their home country they should do that. If they do so, I urge them to vote for pro-European parties there.
2. Does Change have anything to say beyond the need for a second referendum?
Rostowski: Change believes that the Brexit referendum was a symptom of how broken British politics are, and need to be changed. That’s why it’s called “Change UK”. Britain needs a new politics that are less confrontational, involve ordinary people far more and are more ”evidence based”. To achieve this, we need to change political culture profoundly, so that experts and ordinary people can work together to come up with the best decisions. I believe this must and can be done, but not if the divisive politics of Brexit are allowed to carry the day.
3. How does British democracy need to change to survive and will this happen?
Rostowski: It will change fundamentally, because it has to. People now identify far more strongly with the way they voted in the Brexit referendum than with the party they voted for in the 2017 elections. Both main parties are split right down the middle. Neither properly represents its voters any more. Both are likely to split into separate factions or be replaced by new parties, which will coalesce around the Brexit Party led by Nigel Farage and Change UK led by Heidi Allen. A hard left, anti-European Labour Party will probably also continue to be important. If we don’t want to see Farage in No. 10 we must stop Brexit right now! A Farage premiership will deliver Britain gift wrapped and tied in a bow as a vassal state to Donald Trump. That is not something I want to see, and I am sure it is not what the vast majority of people in this country want to see, including those who voted for Brexit.
4. How will running in the UK affect your political profile in Poland & do you have ambitions to re-enter Polish domestic politics (what would need to happen for that to happen)?
Rostowski: If I am elected I will serve out the term of this European Parliament – unless of course Britain leaves the European Union. Legally, MEPs represent not only the constituency they are elected from, but all Europeans. European politicians can, and I believe should, engage in politics across the whole EU, just as in Britain Manchester MPs should engage in politics not just in Manchester, but across the UK. So, in the EP I will above all argue passionately that Britain needs more time to find its way out of this massively damaging Brexit. Not all European politicians understand that, and as a former Deputy Prime Minister I think I will have the opportunity to influence thinking in the EP on this. Second, I will work for London’s dynamic, service based economy. As a former finance minister I think I am well placed to do that. But I shan’t stop fighting for democracy, the rule of law and equal rights and respect for all throughout Europe, including Poland in particular.
5. Populism in Europe takes differently forms (Brexit, PiS, Orban, Salvini) – but are there threads that create a recognisable movement and what can be done to combat its rise?
Rostowski: I see five common features. All the populists and nationalists are anti-European, although those who operate in countries where Europe is popular, like Poland and Hungary, try to hide that. All are happy using lies in politics. Donald Trump has just passed the 10,000 mark for VERIFIED porkies since the start of his presidency. They often use the promotion of hate against outsiders and minorities as a way of mobilising their electoral base. That happens somewhat less in Britain than in Italy, Poland or Hungary. Any minority will do: refugees, EU citizens from other countries, the LGBT community – because the purpose is simply to get the vote out. If rousing people against one minority does not “catch on” they move on to the next. For example, Law and Justice in Poland saw that attacking refugees was not working any more (because there are practically none in the country) – so they switched to the LGBT community. A fourth thing populists have in common, is that once they get power they are often incredibly corrupt financially, although their propaganda says exactly the opposite. We see this in Turkey, Hungary and Poland, and I expect we would see it in France and Britain as well, if the populists ever come to power. The fifth is that they cannot really work together across Europe, since they put a short term view of the national interest above all else. Recently, Hungarian PM Órban led the charge against Italy in the European Council over Salvini’s budget plans. Poland and Hungary refuse to help Italy out over refugees, and so on.
6. How have your views changed on LGBT issues?
Rostowski: I was one of the first Polish politicians to criticise PiS’s vile and disgusting attacks on the LGBT community in March of this year. PiS’ attacks on the LGBT community are an attack on the civil rights of all of us, and scapegoating of this kind, setting Poles against each other, are an attack on the whole national community. My earlier remarks (from 2011), have been trumpeted by both the extreme left and extreme right, despite the fact that my views, like those of many people, have changed fundamentally, and are now that we must have equal rights for all people to civil partnership and marriage regardless of sexual orientation. A stable society is one based on equal rights for all. Polish attitudes are also slowly changing on this. I changed my mind on civil partnerships in 2015, and those on gay marriage as a consequence of the Irish referendum.