Closing Ceremony, College of Europe, Natolin Campus, Warsaw

Fryderyk Chopin Promotion, 2015/16 Academic Year, 16th June 2016

Vice-Rector Ośniecka-Tamecka—

Rector Monar—

Faculty members of the College of Europe—

Graduates of the Promotion Chopin

Mesdames et messieurs

[“Good morning”, in Polish…]

I’ll begin with an apology.

I am fluent in the three European languages most widely spoken in the United Kingdom.

Only one of them, regrettably, is a working language at the College of Europe.

And so I will speak in English rather than French –and I will spare you the ordeal of hearing me talk in Welsh, or even in Polish.

Of course, Polish is the language of my parents.

Jan and Zofia Borysiewicz were among the 200,000 Polish immigrants who arrived in the United Kingdom during World War II, having escaped imprisonment in Siberia and travelled through Central Asia, Egypt and Italy.

I grew up in Cardiff, in a Polish-speaking community, hearing stories about the heroes of Polish history.

No figure loomed larger in my imagination than Jan III Sobieski, the Polish King whose victory at the gates of Vienna is the stuff of legend.

So I am especially excited to find myself speaking today at the College of Europe’s Natolin Campus, on the edge of the park originally established by Jan Sobieski at the end of the 17th century.

It is an honour to have been invited to address you at the closing ceremony for the academic year 2015-2016.

Since its foundation, the College of Europe has played a key role in educating leaders whose impact on European policy and thought has been far-reaching.

I can think of no other Institution that, in such a relatively short period of time, has produced such an impressive roster of top-level politicians, diplomats and international officials

This Natolin campus, built on the ideal of greater integration and prosperity through greater mutual understanding between established European countries and their “neighbourhood”, has been particularly important to nurturing the idea of a wider, more open and truly multicultural Europe.

The College’s Chair in European Civilisation, and its Chair in European Neighbourhood Policy, are evidence of a mind-set that cuts across borders –and I mean the borders between countries as much as the borders between academic disciplines. Believe me both can be rigid and full of barbed wire.

It is a mindset that continues to reflect the words of Salvador de Madariaga, the College’s founder, when he wrote about a Europe that, amid its diversity, “preserves enough common ground and reduces enough the distances between the inner voices [of its members] for the discussion to be stimulating and fertile.”

There is one more reason why I am very pleased to be here.

This class of 2015-2016 has been named after the most enduring –and European— of 19th century musicians.

A composer whose longing for his Polish homeland was expressed in music that stirred hearts in London and Paris – that’s quite an achievement - in Leipzig and Salzburg.

Fryderyk Chopin has been of great interest to me - well he did die of tuberculosis and that’s a particular research interest - as the University of Cambridge has over the past few years collected, in a single online resource, all available primary sources of Chopin’s music - whether they are sketches, complete manuscripts, first printed editions, or later impressions.

To anyone in the Promotion Chopin wishing to understand the work of this irrepressibly imaginative composer, I would strongly suggest paying a visit to the University’s “Online Chopin Variorum”.

Exactly a week from now, on June 23rd, citizens in the United Kingdom, for better or worse, will be asked to give their answer to the question of whether the United Kingdom should “remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union”.

When the war of soundbites and statistics has subsided, or non statistics or non data, we will be left with the consequences of one of the most serious choices this country has been asked to make since 1975 –and possibly for many decades hereafter.

Allow me to spend some of my remaining time saying why I think the answer to that question should be an unequivocal, unambiguous YES to remaining in the European Union.

And to say why I think this matters not only to the UK, but to Europe. 

Let’s start with the obvious…

The United Kingdom should remain part of the European Union because we are part of Europe.

Let’s not forget that it was only though an accident of geology that we became separated from “the continent”.

There was a time when our islands were part of the same continental landmass… and to the best of my knowledge we sit on the same continental shelf and we cannot be towed to sit outside New York harbour.

When the Thames, the Seine and the Rhine all flowed into the same river basin, which only became today’s English Channel after a post-glacial melt some 8,000 years ago. What happens with global warning goodness only knows.

No matter what the proponents of Brexit would wish us to think, the United Kingdom is inextricably linked to Europe.

But more seriously…

We don’t have to go as far back as the latest glaciation to understand why the European project is one to which we should always aspire to be a part of.

At the heart of this modern European project are some very simple but very powerful ideas:

That this community of nations, bound by geography, can achieve more, and do better, by working collectively.

That these countries can avoid war with each other, and improve their lot, by acting in concert and acting collegially.

That its members will be enriched, not diminished, by allowing their citizens the mobility to seek opportunities.

Those are the fundamental principles underpinning the European ideal.

I am the literal embodiment of what that European ideal will allow: the Welsh son of Polish refugees, now at the helm of a quintessentially British University.

I feel European to my very core.

And my Britishness is as much a part of this feeling of belonging to Europe as is my Polish genetic background.

The generosity of spirit of the European project has shaped me both individually, and professionally.

As the Vice-Chancellor of a leading research university in the United Kingdom, now I’m going to be a little more biased – the leading research university - I have had to grapple with the question of what is at stake for the UK’s higher education when we vote on whether to remain or to leave.

Our sector has done quite well out of our European engagement, especially when it comes to research-intensive universities like Cambridge.

Between 2007-2013 the UK was a net receiver of EU funding for research.

Under the 7th Framework Programme the UK received almost 18% of the total funding awarded to all EU countries.

To date, we have received close to €1.3bn under H2020.

EU funding accounts for approximately 16% of UK universities’ research budget. The idea that this is an optional extra is fundamentally wrong.

No one could argue that our sector does not bring a good return on investment from European membership.

But there is a much more fundamental argument to be made in favour of our sector’s full engagement with the EU.

The question is not how much funding we get from Europe, but what that funding enables. Because we’re part of a community.

Consider, for instance, how we have benefited from freedom of mobility within the EU - not a topic that everyone in Britain would necessary concur with:

200,000 UK students have studied and worked abroad through the Erasmus programme. Now think of the diversity that they bring back to the UK.

Over 125,000 EU students are currently studying at UK universities.

15% of academic staff at UK universities is from other EU countries.

The conclusion, to me, is clear.

Extricating ourselves from a system that allows the mobility of staff and students, losing that ability to attract the brightest minds from our nearest-neighbouring countries and from our nearest collaborators, would impoverish the United Kingdom –in every sense. So even if you want to take a parochial view there’s a good and overriding reason for remaining.

Beyond the research income generated through European awards, what interests me most is the impact that collaborative research can have.

Because collaborative research is the only way to tackle some of the great global challenges we face, whether it is the problems of ageing societies, energy sustainability, or food security – take your pick.

To give one example of the impact of collaboration:

In 2011 the EU funded a large-scale research programme called ANTIGONE (which stands for Anticipating the Global Onset of New Epidemics).

It involves European 14 partners, including the University of Cambridge.

It wishes to understand why some viruses and bacteria spread by animals cause epidemics in humans, while others do not.

It seeks to predict, prevent and prepare for future pandemics of animal origin.

[additional sentence]

What could be more urgent –not just for the UK, but for the world when we have people likely to die from infections that years ago could be easily treated?

Could we have done this alone?

Given the scale and the complexity of the problem, the answer is: no.

The answer is we can’t not do this.

Ultimately, our close engagement with our European partners matters because it enables universities to serve our societies better.

That is the primary purpose of every academic institution.

We don’t have to go too far to see how EU funding has a real impact – not just Europe’s research base, but if you want to be parochial on the knowledge fuelling the UK’s research base.

And we don’t have to be visionaries to see the tremendous societal impact this knowledge can have –in the UK, in Europe, and far beyond.


Now… I will be the first to admit (and you will know this better than anyone) that the EU is not a perfect institution. It’s only been around 60 years.

But I challenge you to point to a political institution that is. Because I don’t know of one.

If the European Union were an ideal institution, frankly, why on earth would you be studying it?

So yes: many of the EU’s policies may be inadequate, its mechanisms insufficient, its processes too complex.

But in the very complex world we live in, frankly, they are the best we have.

Which is not to say they couldn’t be better.

Here, ladies and gentlemen of the Promotion Chopin, is where we can learn something from the great musician under whose name you have been gathered:

The reason we are able to study and perform such a vast catalogue of variations of Chopin’s music is that he felt that his work was never finished…

He would incessantly correct his sheet music, have it printed, correct again, produce a new edition, alter, edit, improve…

The EU and its institutions can be improved.

Like Chopin’s music, they are a permanent work in progress. As a biologist, I tell you if you stand still you become extinct and the EU is far from that.

But we won’t improve them by staying outside and remaining curious bystanders.

We can only improve the EU’s mechanisms by remaining fully engaged partners, and by exerting our influence through credible leadership and collaboration. There is that awkward word again – leadership.

Allow me, if I may, to quote from a speech I came across, delivered by a well-known British politician:

“At a time of uncertainty in world affairs, Europe gives us a far better chance of peace and security…

…To take a gamble of leaving Europe would be reckless in the extreme...

…It’s a gamble where we have little to win, but a lot to lose…

…To leave such a Community would not merely be a leap in the dark, it would be like a leap overboard from a secure ship into dark and uncharted waters.”

The speaker –did anyone guess?—was Margaret Thatcher.

The year was 1975, and Britain was facing a referendum on continued membership of the European Community.

Her tone had changed, of course, by the time she delivered her well-known speech to the College of Europe, in Bruges, in 1988.

But what surprises about her words in 1975 is not only the pro-European stance she took, but also how similar the rhetoric is to some of the current discussions.

A barrage of metaphors has been deployed in the past few weeks, warning about both the dangers of remaining and the perils of leaving.

Forty-one years after Thatcher’s speech, we continue to leap into the dark, and to sail into uncharted waters.

Our current arrangement with Europe, pro-Brexit campaigners suggest, is like being difficult lodgers living in a house that we didn’t design. Well, when we are lodgers most of us do live in a house we didn’t design.

Leaving the EU, some have said, will be like trying to get a divorce without settling the financial arrangements first.

One of the most accurate analogies I’ve seen comes from an article published in the Washington Post:

What the Brexit camp is asking for, the article says, “is the economic equivalent of quitting your job because you think you can get it back later, minus all the parts you don't like. In other words, a fantasy”.

As a consequence of this fantasy, it adds, “Britain would be left out of work and out of friends.”

This final part, “out of friends”, matters a lot.

Because the truth is that although we know what the benefits of our membership of the European Union are, we can only speculate about the consequences of leaving –that, indeed, is one of the fatal flaws of the “Leave” campaign.

But I am sure of one thing: in the event of the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union, we will have squandered the good will of all our neighbours.

We will have thrown away our own chances of being at the table, of being listened to, and thus leading - of influencing policy in the issues that matter most, both domestically and internationally: Far from gaining sovereignty, we lose sovereignty by losing our place at the table.

Security… health… prosperity… diplomacy… the creation of knowledge… the safeguarding of the environment…the protection of essential rights. All of these things cross the physical borders of individual countries ­. We have to be bigger than that.

The current referendum campaign has been perplexing, alarming, and utterly depressing.

For starters, I believe this referendum was unnecessary.

And if you’ll pardon yet another metaphor, I believe we are holding our future hostage to what is essentially a power struggle within Britain’s governing party.

How odd it must seem to our friends outside the UK to see the country tearing itself apart over this issue.

How petty it must seem in countries like Poland, which has fought so hard to be admitted into Europe’s community of nations –committed to the values of openness and excellence and freedom— to see us squabbling and taking our membership of the EU for granted.

The economic case for remaining in the European Union has been made, and it is probably fair to say that that argument has been won.

The battle-lines are now being drawn on two other issues that are more difficult to quantify.

One is this nebulous issue of sovereignty.

Those who wish to see the United Kingdom leaving the EU are quick to conflate national sovereignty and isolationism.

This stems from a fundamental misunderstanding of the realities of government in today’s world.

The notion that any country can be a self-contained political and economic entity, free to set its own rules, is nothing but a flight of fancy- one I have described as an Alice In Wonderland world, based on very little absolute reality.

A country can only call itself sovereign if it can deliver prosperity, health and security to its citizens – going back to the ancients, let alone today’s world.

Only by pooling some of their powers are governments able to deliver that nowadays.

The other very deeply divisive issue that has been brought into the debate is immigration.

Again I wonder what the casual outside observer will make of the fact that a nation like ours, which has built its current economic success on the work and the entrepreneurship of many generations of immigrants, now appears more determined to dig moats and put up fences than to build bridges.

The “Leave” campaign’s panicked response to losing the economic argument has been to deliberately conflate the issue of legitimate freedom of movement within Europe with the urgent questions arising from one of the greatest humanitarian catastrophes of our time.

This reveals two things to me:

First, it shows an absolute ignorance about (or unwillingness to acknowledge) some of the basic facts about immigration:

That in Europe, the free movement of people helps address serious labour market imbalances, and boosts the working-age population;

That over the past 10 years, migrants have accounted for a 70% increase in the work force in Europe;

That across Europe they contribute more in taxes and social contributions than they receive in benefits;

That’s a fact – and yet that fact is being subverted as “abuse” becomes the theme of the debate.

That they bring skills and contribute to the human capital development of the receiving countries.

That migration contributes directly to growth and innovation and to vitality of countries.

In fact, since the year 2000, immigrants have represented 14% of the increase in Europe’s highly educated labour force. That’s data from OECD.

This figure might even include some of you in this room…

The second thing that the opportunistic use of the immigration crisis reveals is an absolute failure of the imagination, of empathy, and of vision.

The imagination to put ourselves in the shoes of the displaced and the uprooted.

The empathy to see that they are mothers and fathers, sons and daughters, spouses and friends, who have –overwhelmingly— not arrived in search of social benefits, but in search of safety.

The vision to understand that these men, women and children will be the productive, creative and innovative citizens of a future Europe.

And that therefore the most urgent question should not be how we stop them, or manage their repatriation, but how we tackle the challenges of their integration.

I assure you, these challenges will be considerable.

But it is up to us to make a positive, evidence-based case for the free movement of people.

Had Britain not welcomed my parents, and believe me it did welcome them during difficult times, and allowed them to resettle, I would not be here addressing you today.

Fifty years from now, it may well be the child of one of today’s arrivals who stands in front of a group like this one, representing one of Britain’s leading universities.


Ladies and gentlemen, graduates of the Promotion Chopin,

But let me finish by talking about sport.

There is no question about what team I will be supporting this afternoon, when Wales plays England in Lens.

There is no question about who I will be cheering on later this evening, when Poland plays Germany in Paris.

When the Olympics kick off in Rio de Janeiro in a few weeks’ time, I will be applauding the efforts of the British team.

I am fiercely proud of the fact that I can confidently wear many hats, and claim multiple belongings.

Whatever country you are from, and wherever you go after, I have no doubt that your experiences here, over the past year, have cemented your sense of belonging, and contributing to, a wider European project.

Let’s remind ourselves that this project, which has in the European Union one of its enduring manifestations, is not simply, as some would have it, a bureaucratic abstraction.

To people across the continent who have survived the lasting damage of conflicts still within living memory, the EU’s existence is evidence of the triumph of peace-making through institution-building and collaboration.

As next week’s referendum reveals, my generation is deeply ambivalent about the European Union and its institutions.

This ambivalence is also apparent elsewhere, as extremist groups across Europe reject the underlying openness and democratic values of the European project.

Despite any misgivings about flaws in existing institutions, the essential vision remains the same:

A community of nations providing opportunities for trade, for employment, for security, for collaboration, for mutual cultural enrichment and for peaceful coexistence.

It will soon be in your hands to make the institutions fit the vision.

Many thanks.