Change UK's Jan Rostowski: How Poland's former deputy prime minister is planning to stop Brexit

  • Change UK candidate and former Polish Deputy Prime Minister Jan Rostowski speaks to Business Insider.
  • Rostowski says he joined the party because Brexit is a “fulcrum point” in European history.
  • He says he has “fundamentally” changed his views on homosexuality in recent years, following controversial comments unearthed this week.
  • Rostowski believes that Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage could one day become prime minister.

LONDON – Jan Rostowski has witnessed his fair share of decisive historical moments.

The politician was born and raised in the UK but moved to his parents’ native Poland to help steer the country through a dramatic shift in its political landscape. He served first as an adviser to the country’s finance minister from 1989 to 1991 – when the country was making its transition from communism to a market economy – and later as the country’s Conservative finance minister himself.

That appointment came in 2007, one year before the financial crisis upturned the global economy and ripped apart the established political order. He would later serve as the country’s deputy prime minister.

Now, he has returned to London to try to stop Brexit, which he calls “the worst thing that has happened in Western Europe since the Second World War.” He is standing as a London candidate in the upcoming European elections for Change UK – The Independent Group, the upstart anti-Brexit outfit founded earlier this year by disaffected Labour and Conservative MPs.

“I have always, in my political life, felt it’s really critical that you try and take part in those fulcrum points in history,” he tells Business Insider.

“This is another one of those historical moments. It’s bad for Britain, and it could also be very bad for Europe.”

Why is Rostowski running to become an MEP? Principally, to try and force a second EU referendum as part of the political group which calls itself the “Remain alliance.”

“The lie was that you could have your cake and eat it. The lie was that you could have frictionless trade without the obligations of membership,” he says.

“This is the fundamental argument for a People’s Vote. We’ve seen what that lie is.”

He also believes the EU referendum in 2016 will lead to nothing less than “the collapse of the present party political system” in Britain, and worries about the space it is creating for figures like Nigel Farage to make a run on Downing Street in a future general election.

I would not exclude the possibility that, sometime down the road, [Farage] will walk in through that black door, light up a fag and ask for a pint of Guinness,” he says.

Conservative and Labour attempts to find a popular Brexit position among divided voters are already causing havoc with poll ratings, with nascent political movements like Change UK and Farage’s new Brexit Party aiming to sweep up support from a deeply polarised electorate.

“After all this, I would not exclude the possibility that, sometime down the road, [Farage] will walk in through that black door, light up a fag and ask for a pint of Guinness,” he says.

Rostowski says he has plenty to offer as an MEP because he knows “really well” how the EU works.

His time as Poland’s finance minister, from 2007 to 2013, saw him attend over dozens of meetings of ECOFIN, the EU’s council of finance ministers. There, he learned a truth widely acknowledged that now seems ironic: British negotiators were masters at extracting the best deal possible from the EU.

“I know just how incredibly good the British were at getting their interests across the line within the European Union. They were absolutely the best negotiators,” he says.

He recalls one argument where British negotiators locked horns with French and German colleagues over financial clearing houses. “At one point the French ambassador was almost in tears,” he said.

“When the British really cared about something, they would just outplay [their counterparts]. It was unbelievable, it really was. That’s why some people in Europe are annoyed [with Brexit]. Because Britain had the best deal of any country in the whole of the European Union. And Britain just turned around and said, no thanks.”

Change UK has had a rocky start to its European elections campaign. Two candidates have already been forced to withdraw from the race for comments amid allegations of past racist behaviour.

Rostowski has himself come under fire for comments made during a 2011 interview in which he stated his opposition to gay marriage on the basis that “a stable society is based on heterosexual relations.” He says he has changed his opinion “fundamentally” since then.

“My views have fundamentally changed,” he says.

“I’m a Conservative and Conservatives change their views.”

Change UK faces an uphill battle in its bid for success in the European elections on May 23, should they go ahead.

Farage’s Brexit Party, with its clear anti-EU position, has had an explosive start, surging to the top of some polls in the upcoming European elections.

The elections, which were due to be scrapped had Britain left the EU on March 29 as originally intended, are now set to be held in the UK next month following May’s decision to delay Brexit until October.

Change UK, on the other hand, has had a more challenging start to life, registering in the low single figures in some national polls as it struggles to forge a unique identity.

“I hope we’re polling on a lot more [than 9%] as this clarifies,” Rostowski says.

“If the party political system is going to collapse, you want it to collapse in a good way rather than a bad way.”

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