Unsettling times for a settled population? Polish perspectives on Brexit

sky-blue-flag-polandMany Poles have lived, worked, and settled in the UK for up to 12 years now. Anne White, Professor of Polish Studies at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies, says it’s no longer so easy for them to pick up and leave. This piece is part of the UCL European Institute’s commissioning partnership with openDemocracy.

When I was asked to write a piece about Poles and other EU citizens living in the UK and their perspectives on Brexit, my first thought was that Polish people in the UK are little different from the millions of UK citizens living or travelling to work in other EU countries, or from French, German and other western Europeans living in Britain. All have equal reason to feel horrified by the prospect of Brexit.

It has been almost twelve years since Poland and other central and east European countries joined the EU: plenty of time for freedom of movement to seem normal and taken for granted, and for individual lives to be planned on the assumption that free movement was a right which would not be retracted. In some cases, exercising the right to free movement involves commuting across international borders. In many others, EU citizens have settled and put down roots in other EU countries, roots which might not be easy to tear up. This applies equally to Poles in the UK. As a Polish mother commented to me in Bristol, “definitely we’ll be in the UK for a long, long time, because, well, it’s obvious that children can’t be continually chopping and changing”.

Insofar as Poles in the UK are different from some other groups of migrants, it is partly because there are so many young families here. This adds a particular dimension to their current predicament. The popular image of the young Polish migrant who could just as easily go back to Poland as stay in the UK was reasonably accurate in 2004, but that was twelve years ago. At the time, many had only just graduated or left school and had never been employed in Poland. Now their whole working life has been lived in the UK.

Though often starting in unskilled manual jobs, many progressed to more interesting employment or set up businesses. They learned their way around their local areas, made friends, found partners, and had families. Existing parents encouraged their spouses and children to join them in the UK. Some people expended huge energy in creating Polish organisations, such as Polish-language supplementary schools, that added to the network of institutions established by the post-1945 Polish diaspora.

Recent research into civic participation among Poles in the UK, conducted for the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs, suggests that many others take part in leisure activities alongside non-Polish people living in Britain. Travelling by bus from Warsaw to Podlasie region last summer, I happened to sit next to a post-accession migrant (like myself, on holiday in Poland) who entertained us during the ride by showing me her photos of walking holidays in the Peak District and mid-Wales.

In other words, this is a generation of Poles at home in the UK. Moreover, in many cases these are the people who consciously decided not to return to Poland, despite the 2008 crisis and the subsequent hardening of attitudes towards UK-based Poles. Others did try settling back in Poland, but returned after realising that ‘home’ was in the UK. In researching these returnees, I have labelled them ‘double return migrants’: you return to the place you miss, and the return to the UK seems to have been as strongly felt as the original return to Poland. Often, parents who came to the UK had initially assumed that they would return to Poland before their children started school at the age of seven. Once this watershed had been reached, and the families still had many reasons to keep them in the UK, it seemed more sensible to stay put rather than taking the risk of their children having to adapt to a very different educational system.

Paradoxically – in view of the threat of Brexit and the current stigmatisation of Polish migrants – it was partly the sense of being appreciated in the UK which helped Poles feel at home. Poles in all walks of life seem to share a common assumption and pride that Poles are valued for their competence at work. Polish children often seem to do well at school, partly because of close parental monitoring of children’s homework, a habit brought from Poland. Naomi Flynn, in her 2013 study of the attitudes of English primary school teachers, suggests that “the teacher-friendly behaviour of Polish children and families may support a generalised construction of the Polish model learner”. Poles appreciated the extension of voting rights to Poles in the Scottish referendum of 2014 as recognition that, as taxpayers and contributors in many other respects, they were stakeholders in the country.

Like other EU citizens resident in the UK, most Poles did not however take the ultimate integration step and become British citizens. This should not be seen as indicating a lack of belonging, but rather a common sense attitude that the hassle and expense of applying for citizenship was unnecessary for EU citizens. According to Ambassador Sobkow, interviewed for the Polish Daily in November 2015, “perhaps two or three thousand people annually decide to adopt dual nationality. The main reason I hear is the referendum and its consequences, which are hard to predict”.

Of course none of the major parties is talking about deporting Poles from the UK. However, the unpredictability of the referendum’s consequences does create uncertainty for Poles, and it is hard not to feel anxious about what kind of government would come to power if British voters elected to leave the EU, and what settlement would be reached with regard to the rights of EU citizens already resident.

Moreover, Polish people already in the UK cannot be indifferent to the prospects of Poles who might want to come in the future. Migrants – especially in today’s world of networks – are not isolated individuals, but live lives which are intertwined with those of family and friends in the origin country. In particular, what would happen in the case of Poles currently living in the UK alone, but hoping to invite their spouses and children? Would future family reunification be able to take place? Polish parents in the UK often depend on occasional visits from their own parents to help with childcare or house repairs: would these family members have to go through the process of applying for a visa to make a simple visit?  What about all the Polish businesses stretching between Poland and the UK?

Moreover, it can also be questioned whether any government could simply stop further migration from Poland to the UK. After all, as Stephen Castles and Mark Miller, authors of the standard textbook The Age of Migration, pertinently observe, “migration cannot be turned on and off like a tap’.


Anne White is Professor of Polish Studies at the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies.


This piece is co-published with openDemocracy.


NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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