Brexit – a Polish perspective from Warsaw and London

Monument mermaid in Warsaw
Teaser Image Caption
Can the mermaid monument in Warsaw help to defend the consequences of the Brexit?

With Britain leaving the EU Poland is loosing one of its most important security policy ally. At the same time up to a million polish migrants in Britain are facing an uncertain future as they were already being used as scapegoats in the Brexit campaign.

The first Polish reactions to the results of the referendum on Great Britain’s membership of the European Union did not differ greatly from the wave of surprise and shock that fell over Europe and the wider world on the morning of June 24th 2016.

The Polish media covered the campaign fairly extensively – a situation directly linked to the influence that the British decision would have on the fate of Polish migrant workers in the UK. Former PM David Cameron visited Warsaw in December 2015 and February 2016 and his demands for decreased levels of bureaucracy within EU institutions and the return of certain powers to member states met with the support of the governing elites here. This was accompanied, however, by suggestions that “the British have always been treated differently” and that they were “practicing brinkmanship” – the latter was uttered with a hint of envy because it was thought that perhaps such a policy should be employed here too. Yet no one actually believed that the darkest of scenarios would really come to pass.

Despite entrusting the country to the eurosceptic Law and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwośc) in its most recent elections, Poland is still one of the most enthusiastic nations towards the European Community and Poles support involvement in EU structures. The latest opinion polls (TNS June 27th – 28th, 2016) confirmed that 81% of Polish people are in favour of Poland’s membership of the EU while only 13% want the country to leave. Given this strong support and the relatively short time that Poland has been a member state, the average Pole could hardly imagine why any country would want to voluntarily deprive itself of EU membership.

Losing an important ally

Along with the numerous and often surprising changes (even to its own voters) that it has undertaken since its first days after taking power, the Law and Justice government chose Great Britain as Poland’s strategic European partner. Germany, so far Poland’s main partner, fell into second place, though it maintained its role as principal trade partner. Speaking in the Parliament on January 29th 2016, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski justified the change, citing a common “understanding of many important elements of the European agenda as well as a similar approach to issues of European security”. At the European Parliament, Law and Justice forms an alliance with the UK’s governing Conservative Party within the group of European Conservatives and Reformists. Consequently, the “leave” decision poses a big problem to the ruling party.

The new partnership, announced no more than half a year ago, is now losing its importance in the international arena. Poland’s new partner is exiting the structures of the European Union and although Britain declares its readiness to continue close cooperation, it will be nothing more than close cooperation. Admittedly, Barack Obama confirmed the special ties between the USA and the United Kingdom, while right before the actual referendum he underlined that he saw the future of Great Britain within the European Community. Economic issues that probably still await Britain are also unlikely to help the UK’s standing in the world. The institutional and political EU reforms that Law and Justice had hoped for can no longer be passed with Britain. Germany – until recently Poland’s main ally – is not willing to cooperate so closely again. Anti-German rhetoric from the government and the right-wing media as well as anti-democratic reforms to the judicial system and media have caused a drop in trust from anyone living west of the Oder. Weakened relations with Germany have directly translated into a weakening of Poland’s position in relation to its neighbours and regional partners. Visegrád Group members and the Baltic countries have all stressed that they accept Poland as a potential leader in this part of Europe as long as this does not stand in conflict with their bilateral relations with Berlin.

Minimal influence for Brussels

Law and Justice blames European elites for the referendum result. It underlines their disconnection from the needs of citizens, the lack of legitimacy of European Union institutions like the European Commission, and the need to return to the foundations of the Union – the free movement of goods, services, people and capital. Poland would like to strive for a “Europe of sovereign nation states” with the powers delegated to Brussels restricted to a strict minimum.

Even if this criticism is in part correct and shared by political groups from different parts of Europe, a private issue escalates the debate. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, was the longest serving Prime Minister of Poland in the post-1989 period and he is Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński’s longtime opponent, if not enemy. Tusk assumed office as President of the Council while the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska) was still in power and, according to Law and Justice (then in opposition), he sacrificed the interests of the country for his own career. Almost one year before the elections, he resigned as Prime Minister and leader of a party that was tired after eight years of governing – this resignation made it easier, in a way, for Law and Justice to gain power. The current government prefers to say that he managed to escape from a sinking ship. Tusk tried unsuccessfully to convince the British people to remain in the European Union, and so suffered defeat as a European leader. Any doubts as to whether Law and Justice would support Tusk’s candidacy for another term in Brussels can be definitively dispelled. The calls for the resignation of European leaders responsible for the Brexit result leave no uncertainty in the matter.

A burning issue that has arisen as a consequence of Brexit is the fate of Poles living in Great Britain. According to different estimates, there are between 850,000 and 1 million Poles living and working in the UK. The British labour market was one of the first to open itself up to so-called new member states. The unemployment rate in Poland at the time of EU accession (May 2004) was 20%. It was not long until the first wave of people decided to migrate – especially since many had paved the way before the accession and created a foothold for the newcomers. Only a few of those who decided to leave have come back. The reasons for staying in Britain were not only higher wages but also better working conditions, better interpersonal relations, better living standards and socio-political factors. Polish migrants largely embraced the ethnically and religiously diverse society, which in turn is also accepting of different world views. They gave up on their idea of earning and saving for a fresh start back home and instead decided to start families in their new country. The birth rate among young Polish women in Great Britain is higher than it is for their peers in Poland. Only a few of them, however, decided to apply for British citizenship – a Polish passport seemed to suffice.

In fact, the presence of citizens of Poland and other countries from Central and Eastern Europe was the leading issue in the referendum campaign. Provincial England, which mainly voted to leave the EU, expressed its disapproval of the increasing domination of migrants in the public sphere. After the referendum Poles increasingly found themselves the target of xenophobic attacks, including arson, and received flyers in their mailboxes calling on them to leave the country. Although the reaction of British leaders was quick and assertive, they did not provide an answer to the fundamental question: what status will the 1 million people who  live in a country bidding farewell to the European Union have? This uncertainty is shared by UK-based citizens of all the other member states. Assurances about openness towards foreigners and their role in London from Sadiq Kahn, the city’s newly elected mayor, have been the only official declaration from a British politician so far, and, with all due respect, he is a local politician.

What happens to Polish migrants?

In recent days, the Polish government has assured us that it will put its best efforts into making sure that Brexit shall not change anything for Poles living in the UK. This will certainly influence Poland’s position in the negotiations of the UK’s exit from the European Community. Further scenarios regarding British-EU relations remain unknown, but the fact that the British position on migration and social policy will change is certain. Some experts predict that as many as half the Poles in Great Britain may have to leave. The Polish labour market will undeniably have great problems accommodating such large numbers of workers. Besides, the Polish community in the UK does not want to come back. However, there has been a reversal of roles – the figure of an evil foreigner and “bogeyman” threatening Europe, the character that Law and Justice evoked last year to frighten its Polish voters, has turned out not to be an Arab refugee, but a Pole. Unfortunately, this will not improve Polish thinking about Europe. An even bigger rise in hatred and xenophobia, directed this time against “Arabs” and the West, is possible.

Another particularly important aspect from the Warsaw view are security issues. Talk of Brexit dominated the recent NATO summit in the Polish capital. Britain, the European Union and the rest of the allies will have to redefine their relations in the spheres of data exchange and secret service cooperation – operations which are pertinent to issues such as the war on terrorism. Great Britain was a counterweight to the interests and views of Germany and France in EU-Russian relations. Poland will lose an important ally at a time when the Big Brother from the East is putting Europe to another test. This is also why the decisions made at the NATO Summit about stationing battalions on Polish territory and in the Baltic states were of special relevance for the region.

What will happen to Europe? While different forums discuss various scenarios – “a two-speed Europe” and “more integration of the Euro zone” or, on the contrary, more “independence” referendums demanded by right-wing populists in France, the Netherlands or Denmark – none of them fit in with the plans of the Polish government (or, for that matter, with the plans of the opposition). Kaczyński has declared that EU reform is necessary and the new treaty will help with this. He revealed in an interview with the daily “Rzeczpospolita” that he has commissioned a well-known Polish lawyer to prepare this new legislation. Prime Minister Beata Szydło forgot to mention this during the last EU summit, where it was unanimously declared that treaty changes would not take place. Given the division of power within Law and Justice, the last word belongs to Chairman Kaczyński. The question is whether someone from outside his own party would want to listen to his proposals. There seems to be more and more empty space on the European dance floor around Poland.


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