LEADING ARTICLE: Stumbles in the East

Click to follow
The Independent Online
"It was a cock-up, pure and simple," was the Palace spokesman's explanation for the Queen forgetting to mention the fate of Polish Jews in her speech to the Warsaw parliament. The same could be said of the whole of her gaffe-strewn visit to eastern Europe this week.

But then the visit is itself symbolic of the patchy, uncertain and ambiguous character of British engagement with eastern Europe since 1989. Lots of stirring rhetoric, lots of history, some advice, not much action. Margaret Thatcher briefly provided an ideological link with the aspirant monetarist reformers of the region. But that was never going to be enough to sustain a fully-fledged relationship. Yet since her departure Britain's relations in the region seem to have become directionless.

The Queen's trip sits squarely within that amateurish tradition. A gaggle of management consultants making claims about the British formulae for privatisation or (incredibly) how to organise local government are no substitute for investment and trade. Hackneyed references to a sense of guilt about the way our leaders behaved in the Thirties and the Second World War (but no visit to Auschwitz) put Britain firmly in these countries' past not their future.

Britain has real interests here. We want Poland and the Czech and Slovak republics and Romania to move west, in terms of outlook, politics and economics. That does not mean premature admission to Nato, or to the European Union. It should mean a consistent engagement with these countries, underpinned by growing trade and investment.

Yet too few British companies, compared with their German counterparts, have explored the opportunities of eastern markets. In the early days after 1989 many investors got their hands burnt by over-optimistic and ill-judged investments. These days it is much easier to judge where and how to invest with confidence in Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.

Britain's political engagement with eastern Europe seems opportunistic. Many Conservatives seems to imagine that eastern European states can be cynically co-opted into a scheme rapidly to widen the European Union with the aim of scuppering federalism once and for all.

It is fantasy. The horse has already bolted. German economic influence in Poland and elsewhere is based on trade, capital flows and joint ventures. The Czechs for one may not like it but their absorption into the Deutschmark zone is a fait accompli; eastern Europe's prosperity depends on the Germans.

Of course, as long as the monarchy lasts, the Queen should fly the flag abroad, though one suspects her heart lies in visits across the Commonwealth. But as far as Europe goes, the Queen's visit this week has just served to underline how out-of-touch and unprofessional Britain's approach is. If Britain is to be the standard bearer of a wider EU, it needs to back that with investment and trade rather than royal rituals.