Remarkable lives › 1980s (from 1979) › Urszula Gacek (PPE, 1981)

Urszula Gacek was born in Manchester to Polish parents in 1963, and she matriculated at St Anne’s College to read Philosophy, Politics and Economics in 1981.

Following her degree, Urszula began work at the Abingdon consultancy firm ECS Marine before establishing her own business in 1988, which served the increased need for analysis and information on Eastern Europe created by the withdrawal of communism. In 1991, following the 1989 first free Polish elections, Urszula moved with her business and her husband to Poland which she has happily called home for the last 24 years. Urszula remained in the Polish business sector, including holding the role of CEO for the regional development agency of the Tarnow Industrial Cluster, while aiding voluntarily in local politics. In 2005, Urszula was elected to the Polish Senate for the Civic Platform party, becoming the first woman to represent her home district of Tarnow. In 2007, she became a member of the European Parliament and participated in the European Parliament’s EU-USA delegation. From 2001 to 2014 Urszula lived in Strasbourg where she was the Ambassador and Permanent Representative of Poland to the Council of Europe. Since 2014, Urszula has worked as Poland’s Consul General in New York. 

Could you share a memory from your student days at St Anne’s?

The one that really strikes me is probably one that shouldn’t really be published; it’s the day we drank the JCR bar dry on the day of the Falklands victory. We got ourselves into very serious trouble because when the victory in the Falklands war was announced, somebody, it wasn’t me, said that today we would drink everything without any payment from the JCR bar. I think even the crème de menthe disappeared so you can see how dry the bar was drunk. The bar was closed for a number of weeks as a punishment because the money was non-existent as were the drinks.

On a more serious note, I very much recall the great atmosphere. I had come from a Polish immigrant family in Manchester so Oxford was a little bit of a culture shock for me. I really appreciated the fact that I wasn’t just an anonymous cog in a great big university; there were only seven of us studying PPE at St Anne’s that year which is pretty much the norm, but it gave a feeling of closeness, of friendship, which I think would have been lacking in another university.

I also have very fond memories of my Scout in the first year. I lived on Banbury Road in one of the old houses and we had an amazing Scottish Scout whose name was Vi and she really was like a mother hen; she wouldn’t let us go out in the morning with wet hair.

Outside of St Anne’s, I was active in the Oxford University Polish Society, and I was President of the Society for a little while. That set up a network of friends and contacts who I still maintain links with today. It just goes to show how important also life outside College is via the various societies you become involved in.

How do you think that your studies at St Anne’s affected your later life?

When I started to become involved in public life in Poland it was instrumental. I remember when Poland joined the European Union in 2004, I was a candidate in the European Parliamentary elections; it was my first ever adventure in politics. I had been helping in regional development projects in my home town in the south east of Poland, Tarnow, but I’d not really been involved in politics in Poland. I remember that I was not a known name, there were lots of already established politicians running in that election, and I had what was considered a no-hope place on the list. I remember that on the main television news there was a little ticker tape running along the bottom which was saying ‘former Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek is running, and so and so is running’ and then they said, ‘Civic Platform even has an Oxford graduate running.’ There are probably lots of Oxford graduates running for political posts in the United Kingdom, but in Poland it was completely unique. It really made a difference to my campaign I think; people were of the opinion that if you had an Oxford education you were probably well-suited for a life in office. In that 2004 election I didn’t have enough votes to secure the seat but in 2005 I secured a seat in the Polish Senate, which was quite unusual because I was the first woman and the first Centre Liberal candidate to win from that district. And then when we had a change of government (2007) the incumbent MEP became the Minister of Defence so I took his seat in the European Parliament.

Oxford was a unique selling point, it made me stand out from the rest of the candidates, so it definitely helped in a PR sense. Also more generally I found that being able to confront, to answer, to defend your position, and argue successfully served me very well as a politician and a diplomat. I may have forgotten the substance of some of my tutorials, probably most of them by now, but the skills you acquire in defending your position and arguing your position with an opponent stay with you for the rest of your life.

Could you share a bit about your first job after leaving St Anne’s?

My very first job was for ECS Marine, a small family-owned consultancy and we were basically assessing the risk of doing business mainly in the shipping industry but partly in oil and gas, sometimes in the chemical sectors. The communist government fell in Poland in 1989 and we had the first free and fair elections. Because the political landscape was changing, but also because we were moving to a free market economy, suddenly individual corporations were beginning to come onto the international market as players in their own right. This meant that Western partners had no idea who they were dealing with, suddenly they were being asked to deal with a Polish refinery and they’d been selling to that refinery for many years but they’d always been doing it via a state-owned intermediary with state guarantees, for what they were worth. They weren’t very sure about how to assess the risk of doing business with these companies, what was their status, whether they were state-owned. This was early days, we were pre-privatisation (we don’t really have a state-owned enterprise at all now in Poland, it’s all just companies and many of them are stock market listed). But there was a lot of confusion and I realised that there would be a growing need for information about what was happening in that part of the world.

Initially, we were looking at companies scattered throughout Eastern Europe but then I realised that I needed to specialise and because I’m a Polish speaker it was natural for me to focus on Poland. After a while I realised actually that it didn’t matter where my clients were, I needed to be close to what was happening in Poland so the best place for me to be was Poland.

I had a Polish husband by that stage and it was a real shock to his family that we would want to come to Poland. He had a very good job, Rover cars were still a viable enterprise in Cowley and he was in charge of Far East and service matters so he was travelling a lot and had what would seem to be a dream job for a guy who had come from Poland to the United Kingdom. Our decision to move to Poland was met by dismay by both my family in England, who thought I was crazy, and his family in Poland. They said we’d never last, they said I would stick it for 3 months. That was 24 years ago. It was the best decision we made for ourselves, professionally, and for our family - I have two children aged 21 and 27, both of them very happy that they have spent their lives in Poland and without really much desire to leave, which I think is a good way of summing up what Poland has become in the past 25/26 years.  

You have worked in various countries during your life, are there any which stand out as places you would live?

 I really like living in Poland, that’s what used to surprise some of my British friends when I first moved there. They had an image of this cold, bleak, horrible country. It wasn’t that cold or that bleak 23/24 years ago and it definitely isn’t like that now. This isn’t a diplomatic answer, I can quite honestly say that of all the places that I’ve lived I really enjoy living in Poland most. However, it’s been a very interesting experience, I live in a small village in the south-east of Poland. When I was a member of the Polish Senate I was spending a lot of time in Warsaw which really is one of my favourite cities. Then when I was in the European Parliament I was coming backwards and forwards between Brussels and Strasbourg. As fate would have it I ended up as Poland’s ambassador and permanent representative to the Council of Europe which is in Strasbourg. It’s a lovely place to live, it’s peaceful, it’s quiet, and it’s surrounded by wonderful countryside. I moved straight from Strasbourg at the end of November 2014 to New York which is about as different as you can get in terms of location, going from quiet rural Alsace to midtown Manhattan where I live and work now. I must say that New York also has its charms and despite the fact that it can be a little trying sometimes, especially when it’s hot and it’s humid and traffic is backed up bumper to bumper, it’s still a really exciting place to be.

In terms of career change, moving from multi-lateral diplomacy in the Council of Europe to being the Consul General of Poland in New York is probably as different two jobs as you can imagine in the Polish Foreign Ministry. There’s nothing really in my previous job that I do here in my new job here in New York apart from the fact that I’m in charge of the missions, so I’m in charge of the people, the finances, the security, that is the same in both cases. I’m enjoying my time immensely and looking forward to being here hopefully for four years. A few years ago I really stopped planning what I was going to do because life has thrown me some amazing opportunities. When I was offered this job last summer I hadn’t applied for it. I got a call from the then Foreign Minister, Radek Sikorski, who interestingly enough had also been a member of the Oxford University Polish Society. He gave me literally two minutes to decide whether I wanted to take this and on the basis that you generally regret in life that which you don’t do I said okay, I’ll try it. So major upheaval again, Polish husband going backwards and forwards between Poland and New York, but somehow we’re enjoying it very much indeed.

You have had various roles within the world of politics, which role do you consider the most interesting/ rewarding?

I suppose one of the more interesting things I did as a Polish Senator working with the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on which I was a co-rapporteur, was assessing allegations of electoral fraud in the United Kingdom in particular problems with postal ballots. The then opposition, the Conservatives, had wanted to put the United Kingdom under a special monitoring procedure of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. Before that could be done there had to be an assessment of what was really happening. At the end of the day it was decided not to put the United Kingdom under special monitoring procedure, you’ll be glad to hear, we were convinced that enough was being done to tackle the problem. There were isolated incidents of electoral fraud at local government elections but the British government got its house in order, and it was a very interesting experience.

In the European Parliament, one of the toughest challenges that I faced as a very new parliamentarian was negotiating a resolution on the resettlement of Guantanamo prisoners, people who had been cleared of charges but had nowhere to go. We were trying to find European homes for some of them. That was highly controversial and very difficult to negotiate. It actually got me a positive mention on WikiLeaks.