Poland / AP
Hundreds of thousands of people whose personal fates hinge on whether Britain leaves the European Union or stays don’t even have a say in the matter: Polish immigrants, a community so numerous that Polish has become Britain’s second most-spoken language.
When Poland and many other countries once behind the Iron Curtain joined the EU 12 years ago, Poles gained unprecedented opportunities to live and work in Western Europe — a freedom unthinkable in the communist era. Britain’s dynamic economy has attracted more people from Poland than any other single EU country, and they worry that they could be among the big losers if British voters opt for “Brexit” in the June 23 referendum.
“There is a lot of uncertainty and worry now,” said Jakub Krupa, the head of Poles in UK, an umbrella organization that works with Polish groups in Britain, and the London correspondent for Polish news agency PAP. “Nobody really expects a situation in which all of the old borders are back, but people don’t really understand what might happen. There seems to be no clear arrangement for what the future will look like if there is Brexit.”
Krupa said there is a lot of anecdotal evidence that many Poles are applying for British citizenship, or plan to, even though the fee of more than £1,100 puts off many others.
Ilona Korzeniowska, editor of Polish Express, a Polish-language newspaper published in Britain, said her website has seen a spike this year in Poles looking for information about citizenship. She said many Poles simply don’t have enough information to understand how Brexit would affect them.
There are now about 850,000 Poles working in Britain, while Poland has an overall population of 38 million. So it’s little surprise that Poles overwhelmingly hope that Britain remains in the EU — 80 percent, according to a recent survey by the University of Edinburgh.
Under British law, immigrants who have resided in the U.K. for more than five years can apply for permanent residency. The Polish Institute of International Affairs, a Warsaw-based think tank, estimates that still leaves between 120,000 to 400,000 Poles who arrived after 2012. If Britain leaves the EU, they would have to apply for work visas and, if rejected, leave the country.
Some longtime Polish residents of Britain say they worry mostly about the broader economic implications of Brexit, which some economists predict could lead to an economic slowdown in Britain.
Jacek Mazur, a 35-year-old who has worked in Britain for 10 years, says he is confident he would be allowed to stay after so many years of working and paying taxes in Britain, but he fears the electrical supply company he works for in Hastings could lose its markets in the EU.
“If they lose their customers from the EU then that would affect everyone. So I am worried about the bigger situation,” he said. “But if for some reason I couldn’t stay on in the U.K., I would say ‘fair enough.’ There is only 2 percent unemployment in Warsaw now, so everyone can find a job.”
Poland’s government strongly supports Britain staying in the UK, though some experts say Poland could actually benefit if many of the Polish workers returned home in large numbers with their new skills.
A mass return could help reverse the loss of many young people, some with university education, that the country has seen since it joined the EU in 2004, and offset a dramatic population decline expected to take place in the coming decades due to a low birth rate. But it isn’t clear that Poles forced to leave the U.K. would even want to return home in significant numbers. Some experts believe many would simply move on to another Western European country, with Ireland — already home to many Poles — considered the next most attractive destination.
Even if Britain stays in the EU, there will still be some change for Polish workers because of a deal British Prime Minister David Cameron negotiated with the EU that would cut some of the welfare benefits of foreign workers. It will take effect if Britain stays in the bloc. Krupa says many Poles in the U.K. actually support such reforms after being accused by pro-Brexit campaigners and tabloids of sponging from the welfare system, an accusation not supported by statistics.
A British departure could create a long-term dilemma for PM Beata Szydlo’s government in Warsaw, which itself is skeptical of ceding power to the EU.
If Britain leaves, Poland would move up a place to become the EU’s fifth-largest economy, which would “seemingly make Poland more important,” said Roch Dunin-Wasowicz, a researcher on migrants with the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw. However, he noted that “Britain’s current status on the outer rim of the EU allows Poland not to come closer to the inner circle.”
“Brexit would probably trigger a closer integration of the core EU countries because they would be afraid of a ripple effect,” said Dunin-Wasowicz, who is also a editor of a blog on the Brexit vote run by the London School of Economics.
“That would put Poland’s government in a difficult position of deciding if it is in or out of the core countries.”