Marek Szczepanowski: Cyprus can learn from Poland’s tech revolution

Polish Ambassador Marek Szczepanowski, whose country has already experienced the tech revolution to which Cyprus aspires, explains what Cyprus could learn from Poland’s experience and shares his belief that our two nations’ many similarities transcend the miles that separate us.

Recently speaking as part of the GOLD magazine’s February Cover Story, featuring 11 heads of diplomatic missions in Cyprus, Szczepanowski also revealed that a growing number of Polish people are choosing to work remotely from the island.

Poland appears to be transforming itself into a European tech powerhouse. What lies behind this success?

It is true that the Polish innovation sector has been growing very fast, especially since we joined the EU in 2004, together with Cyprus. We are now reaping the benefits of the development strategies that were implemented to transform the country after the collapse of the communist regime in 1989. We had to launch fundamental reforms in terms of the economy and social life, which created a stable and predictable legal and business environment, and then we could concentrate on moving forward. It was a very interesting phenomenon, as Poland skipped some stages in the evolution of technologies, embracing state-of-the-art solutions. One might say that Poland has experienced a kind of tech revolution rather than an evolution. Currently the number of tech companies is around 60,000 and the IT industry represents 8% of GDP. Consistent strategies and investments are important but talented and well-educated people play a pivotal role. We have a longstanding tradition of successful mathematicians and cryptologists going back to the 19th century and Polish programmers currently rank third globally in developer skills. Another significant factor is Poland’s location in Central Europe which makes it a convenient base for companies in search of clients, partners and employees in both EU and non-EU countries. These advantages are appreciated by the global market and top players such as Google, Samsung, Facebook, Amazon, Intel and Microsoft have invested and established operational bases in Polish cities.

As Cyprus is striving to become a tech hub, what can it learn from the Polish experience? Can the Polish-Cypriot Chamber of Commerce play a role in this?

Education is a particularly important first step. Poland has successfully used its historical and geopolitical location to become an attractive education and research centre in the fields of Computer Science and New Technologies. I see similar conditions in Cyprus too. You have an exceptionally good educational system and a lot of skilled and target-oriented people. Another essential aspect is good cooperation and the exchange of knowledge and ideas which brings profits to all interested parties. Cyprus, as a modern and fast-developing country, has extensive needs in terms of implementing modern IT systems and in the area of data protection. The Polish offering fits the local market perfectly. Last year, the Polish-Cypriot Chamber of Commerce, the Embassy of Poland and the Cyprus Chamber of Commerce & Industry organised a business forum on cybersecurity and IT systems and it was met with great interest and demand by the Cypriot market, which is why are organising a second edition. PolCyber 2024 will present innovative Polish technologies, especially in the field of IT software development, design and security infrastructure. I am sure that both countries can profit from such an exchange and I invite all interested companies to take part in this event.

Tourist arrivals from Poland are expected to exceed 300,000 in 2024. What is it that puts Cyprus high on the Polish tourist’s list of holiday destinations?

Cyprus has become a very popular destination for Polish tourists. Its friendly people, rich history and places of interest, as well as incredibly beautiful nature, beaches and crystal-clear water, are a perfect combination for attracting those looking just for leisure and those interested in exploring the world. Your sunny weather practically all year round is very important too. Cyprus and Poland are both EU member states – we joined exactly 20 years ago, which is an occasion to celebrate together – and it is therefore pretty easy to travel. We also share many similarities in terms of culture and lifestyle and the fact that so many Cypriots speak English makes it much easier for Polish people, especially those who organise their holidays on their own instead of using tour operators. It is impressive that there are currently as many as 32 direct flights a week from both Larnaca and Paphos to a number of Polish cities, including Warsaw, Krakow, Gdansk, Wrocław and Poznań. This is also a great opportunity for Cypriots to visit Poland and our country is becoming one of the top destinations for Cypriot tourists, even in winter. Poland is particularly worth discovering because of its different nature, architecture and interesting historical places. By the way, when visiting Krakow, you could follow in the footsteps of King Peter I of Cyprus, who participated in the Congress of Krakow organised by Poland’s King Casimir the Great, and have lunch in the very same restaurant where the two monarchs feasted.

It still exists!

Poland’s new government has signalled its support for a 90% reduction in net greenhouse gas output across the EU by 2040. What is driving this shift in climate policy?

Poland wants to adopt this ambitious European policy. Climate protection is essential to maintaining the ability to meet the needs of future generations and intergenerational justice requires us to give our descendants a planet that can provide prosperity for them as well. It is also key for us to create policies in a way that they contribute to eliminating energy poverty and strengthen the European and Polish economies, including their global competitiveness. Just energy transition is an opportunity to develop new sectors, create well-paid jobs in new industries, reindustrialize Europe and regain the leading position in modern zero-emission technologies. Issues such as the quality of life in a clean environment and the environmental footprint of purchased products are increasingly important in terms of consumer decisions. Currently, the lifetime cost of many zero-emission technologies and products in the energy, transport and construction sectors is lower than in the case of conventional products. Nevertheless, it is currently too early to determine Poland’s preferred target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions in the EU by 2040. We are waiting for an impact assessment at the level of individual Member States, taking local specificities into account, as well as the consequences for economic and social development, including the potential to reduce energy poverty.

In the last two years, the EU has been facing a migration crisis that has had a substantial socioeconomic impact. How do you see this situation playing out and what, in your opinion, is the way ahead?

Illegal migration is a serious challenge for the entire EU and southern countries feel a particular burden, due to their geographical location. Regardless of whether we are dealing with a sea or land border, I believe that the solution lies in strengthening the EU’s external borders and cooperating with countries of origin and transit of migrants on readmission and the fight against the instrumentalisation of migration. The policy requires an integrated approach, so more decisive action is needed in providing support to third countries that are a source of migration into the EU. I consider it particularly important to take action to counteract the root causes of migration, as well as to provide support to those in need of protection, if possible, close to their place of origin. In the case of legal migrants and refugees, it is particularly important to have a prudent and multi-level integration strategy. The effective integration of migrants is crucial for the future wellbeing, prosperity and cohesion of European societies. The primary responsibility for implementing this strategy lies with national and local authorities but coordinating policies and exchanging knowledge among member states should play a crucial role in the process. Poland accepted over two million Ukrainian refugees after the Russian invasion in 2022 and half of them became permanent Polish residents. To cope with the sudden inflow, our Government has developed and implemented a number of integration programmes (educational, social, labour, housing) and we are ready to share our experience and also to learn from the experience of other member states facing a similar problem. Only in this way can we help each other and achieve all our goals on this issue.

Are there any specific policy changes that you believe would be instrumental in further boosting bilateral relations between Cyprus and Poland?

Relations between Poland and Cyprus are very good and warm, as proven by the fact that, in the past three years, two of the most important Polish state officials – President Andrzej Duda in 2021 and Marshal of the Sejm (Speaker of the House) Elżbieta Witek in 2023 – have paid official visits to Cyprus. Poland is very interested in further strengthening its relations with Cyprus and we are currently working towards a top-level bilateral visit to Poland in the near future. As a country that understands what occupation is, we support the solution of the Cyprus Problem and the ambitious plans to strengthen its role in the Eastern Mediterranean region. Also, I am sure that soon our friendship will grow even more as we, together with Denmark, form the trio Presidency of the Council of the EU that starts from January 2025. This will provide another opportunity for further meetings, consultations and visits at various levels.

What can you tell us about the number of Polish citizens residing in Cyprus and their main occupations?

We do not have exact numbers regarding Poles residing in Cyprus since, as EU citizens, they may enter and leave the Republic of Cyprus freely. However, we estimate that there may be up to 3,000 Poles living in Cyprus permanently. There is a group of so-called “old immigrants”, who moved here around 40 years ago, mostly as partners of Cypriot citizens who studied in Poland and came back to Cyprus. They are mainly well-educated specialists, most of them having dual citizenship. When we joined the EU, a lot of people moved here and found employment in the construction or tourism sectors but many left during the 2013 crisis. The recession forced a change in the nature of labour migration and today, Polish citizens residing in Cyprus are mostly specialists (in finance, logistics, shipping, etc.) or entrepreneurs with their own businesses. There is also a growing group of people who have chosen Cyprus as their place of residence and work remotely, visiting Poland from time to time, and there are Poles who have decided to spend their retirement on this beautiful island. The Polish community is quite small but very active, with a Polish news portal, a Polish Community Association and Polish Language Weekend Schools in every city in Cyprus.

How do you perceive Cyprus’ lifestyle and culture? Are there specific aspects of local life that have left a lasting impression on you during your time here?

I came to Cyprus after two previous visits to your beautiful and hospitable country. Although short, these were very intensive stays connected with the Polish President’s official visit, which was a very successful event. I was, therefore, familiar with the high degree of professionalism and the openness of the Cypriot administration, which was confirmed very soon after I started working here as Ambassador. I appreciate every moment in Cyprus, cherishing the wonderful sunny days – which, for a person from the north of Europe, are not a given! I also have a soft spot for your cuisine, especially kleftiko and all kinds of fruits and vegetables. The longer I am here and the more I get to know the island, the more impressed I am by Cyprus’ history and culture and by what a strong and tenacious people you are. What is surprising to me is the fact that there are so many similarities between Poles and Cypriots, despite our countries being so far apart. For hundreds of years, due to our strategic location we have both faced adversity and interest in our territories by larger and stronger countries, and yet we have managed to survive and to save our identity and culture. I am convinced that the most important issue – the division of the island – will eventually be resolved.

(This interview first appeared in the February edition of GOLD magazine. Click here to view it.)

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