Poland joined the European Union in 2004. Unlike many other countries, Great Britain allowed Poles to work in the UK from that date and did not introduce a transition period that would have delayed their right to live and work here. As a result, many Poles immediately left for the British Isles looking for better employment or work in general.
Because of this, the UK’s Brexit referendum result brought out strong emotions amongst the Polish population.
Why leave the EU?
First of all, it is surprising to us that the UK would want to leave a community which brings so many benefits. Grzegorz Cydejko, an independent economic journalist from Warsaw, puts it succinctly: “Brexit was and remains an incomprehensible event for the vast majority of Poles.” Poles are amongst the greatest enthusiasts for EU membership.
Secondly, people began to worry about the future of Poles living in the UK. Over the last few years this problem was solved, relatively painlessly, with the Settled Status scheme.
Deterring Brexit elsewhere
Marcin Czyzniewski is chairman of the city council in Toruń, a city of 200,000 in the northern part of central Poland. He points out that among his circle of friends and colleagues, no one is happy with Great Britain’s exit from the European Union.
It is widely believed that Brexit seriously damages both Great Britain and the EU itself. Interestingly, most of his acquaintances believe that the EU should impose the strictest possible terms of current cooperation with Great Britain, so that the country does not gain from most of the benefits of the common market without belonging to it. For them, it is primarily a warning to other countries that might consider leaving the EU.
However, Cydejko puts the emphasis not on what was, but on what should happen. In his opinion, the United Kingdom should not just return to the European Union, but rather re-enter it, bringing with it the intellectual heft it formerly provided, and which was a strength for the community.
These two positions reflect the most popular sentiments in Poland regarding relations between Great Britain and the European Union. On the one hand, there is surprise and uncertainty associated with the UK leaving the community, and at the same time, the expectation and hope that the UK will acknowledge the damaging loss of EU benefits which will lead to its return – and which would be beneficial to both parties.
The current Polish situation
Here in Poland, people are closely following Brexit due to the current political situation in our own country. Firstly, people are aware that it was a political project in which populist slogans and an efficiently conducted campaign played a decisive role. Secondly, Poles are afraid of the anti-EU slogans on which the Polish government is trying to build its electoral position.
The political situation within Poland is undoubtedly of great importance. The current government has adopted a confrontational and even hostile attitude towards the European Union. The prevailing narrative in the media it controls is that European officials are trying to impose their will on Poland and that it is necessary to fight for sovereignty.
The situation is such that, on the one hand, in 2022, as many as 92% of Poles considered themselves supporters of the European Union, and on the other hand, there is widespread fear that a long-term campaign of hostility towards the EU may change the attitude of Polish society to the EU. At present it is very positive, but it could be negative in the future.
Poles would welcome the UK’s EU return
Therefore, the return of the UK, or at least a clear declaration of willingness to do so, would be enthusiastically received in Poland. Especially so by the more politically conscious sector of society. This would be a clear signal that a country that had experienced liberation from the rigours of EU law and the influence of Brussels institutions did not consider this a positive solution.
So, when Poles think about Brexit, they are not impartial observers assessing developments from a distance. They also consider how the situation impacts their fellow Poles living in the UK, or the internal political situation in Poland and its impact on our position in the EU.
But it may be surprising that Brexit is virtually absent from the Polish political debate. This is obviously the case with politicians who would like to have uncontrolled power, but EU institutions prevent them from doing so. It is clear that the benefits Britain was supposed to gain from leaving the EU have turned out to be untrue and this doesn’t suit the Polish government’s narrative. But many believe that this could be used as an argument in favour of closer Polish ties with the European community.
Limited Brexit discourse in Poland
That said, this issue is not discussed in practice. What politicians emphasise is the lack of funds from the National Recovery and Resilience Plan. The reason the funds have been withheld is due to the Polish government’s failure to implement judgments handed down by the European Court of Justice, and a generally negative assessment of the state of the rule of law. A lot depends on the results of the upcoming elections on 15 October.
If the ruling Law and Justice party retains power, the confrontation with EU institutions will most likely intensify. This will almost certainly trigger a reaction from those who believe in democratic values – the implementation of which is guaranteed by membership of the Union. In that case, the UK’s situation will likely be an additional argument in the public discourse.
However, if the current democratic opposition takes power, led by former European Council President Donald Tusk, cooperation between Warsaw and Brussels will tighten and EU issues will lose their importance.
The attitude of Poles towards Brexit has always been driven by the country’s internal politics. It has meant that on the whole, the majority of Poles were generally against the UK leaving the EU, and now they would like to welcome its return.
So what is our place in Europe? We’re getting there. Be sure to read the next instalment in our story next Friday.