In common with European countries – and increasingly the UK itself – Poland does not know quite what to make of Brexit.
This is evident in the Polish ambassador Arkady Rzegocki’s letter to his compatriots on Tuesday, which reveals a conflict between the consular duty of care for Polish citizens amid the uncertainties of the protracted Brexit process and the political ambition of the Polish government to tempt back some of the 900,000 Poles who have migrated to the UK.
In his letter, Rzegocki urges UK-based Poles to register in the controversial EU settlement scheme, so they can secure their residency rights regardless of the outcome of Brexit. As Rzegocki stresses, “an alarmingly low level” (27%) of Poles in the UK have so far applied, meaning that “thousands of Polish citizens may be exposed to complications”, if they fail to submit their applications on time.
So far, so diplomatic: the Polish state has a duty of care to provide advice and encouragement to its citizens to ensure they resolve their status and are not exposed to an additional period of uncertainty. However, it is the last paragraph of Rzegocki’s letter that has caught the attention of the British media. In a detour that strikes a rather odd tone in comparison with the rest of the letter, Rzegocki exhorts his compatriots to “seriously consider” returning to Poland.
To focus on this seems a little unfair in the context of Rzegocki’s broader intentions, but it is characteristic of the conflict at the heart of Poland’s diplomatic response to Brexit. Immediately after the referendum, the then deputy prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, spoke of his regret at “losing” a million Polish citizens to the UK and expressed his hope that they would soon return. As prime minister, he was even more forthright about it: earlier this year, he called for Britain to “give us our people back”.
The current government is not alone in this. There is a cross-party consensus that attracting Poles to return to Poland is a strategic priority. It has even become a ritual of sorts for senior Polish politicians visiting London to repeat the appeal to return in front of audiences of young Polish professionals and students. With Poland’s economy set to expand by 4.5% this year, continuing almost three decades of uninterrupted growth, with unemployment remaining at a record low, and with the median salary reaching record levels earlier this year, the Polish government has an increasing number of arguments to sway those considering their future.
The uncertainty surrounding the UK’s withdrawal from the EU only helps in this objective: in the face of the uncertain process of the EU settlement scheme, and amid concerns about the potential for a no-deal Brexit to create profound economic disruption, many Poles are reconsidering their stay in this country.
There are some for whom Brexit is a catalyst for a long-deferred decision about the future. Many Poles originally came only temporarily and remained for much longer than they originally intended. Others are reflecting on the choices they face as they consider starting a family or the need to care for elderly parents in Poland. Most Polish migrants will probably opt to remain in the UK, but it is easy to understand why Rzegocki has sent his letter now.
The upcoming Polish parliamentary elections, only a few weeks away, may also have entered into his thinking. The incumbent rightwing Law and Justice government is understandably keen to emphasise its economic record and anxious to make the case that it is taking active steps not only to stem the brain drain but to reverse it.
However, attempts to contrast Brexit Britain as a land of confusion with an idyllic view of Poland as a land of opportunity collide with the stories of those who have returned. After years in another country, returning is a process: one that involves many of the same emotional and administrative challenges that are causing Poles to reconsider their lives in Britain.
The current crisis is a result of the UK’s decision to leave, but the consular consequences of Poles not applying in time would very much be Poland’s problem, too.
Most of the organisations providing support to Poles in the UK are funded by the UK Home Office, with no substantial input from the Polish authorities, who have so far limited their activities to the provision of general information about Brexit on the embassy’s website. Rzegocki is right to stress the risks associated with people not registering in time but given the variety of reasons why most Poles are yet to register, the Polish government needs to do much more than issue vague encouragement. Without a concerted effort to reach all parts of the UK where Poles live and work, and not just the small proportion who take heed of ambassadorial letters, it will be a case of all words and no action.
An estimated 100,000 Poles here will participate in October’s Polish parliamentary elections, visiting about 50 polling stations organised by the embassy across the UK. These are citizens who evidently care enough about the future of their home country to exercise their democratic right to decide who will govern it. It could only be a positive thing if the Polish state were to use this opportunity to remind its citizens about the need to formalise their post-Brexit status in the UK, and leave it entirely up to them to make the decision about where they want to spend their future.
• Jakub Krupa is a UK-based Polish journalist and social activist
Poland wants its citizens to leave the UK. It should support those who call it home – The Guardian