I'm a Polish journalist who's been living in London for the past 13 years. I collaborate with Cooltura, a weekly magazine for the Polish community in the UK.
On October 25th nearly a million Poles living in the United Kingdom will be voting in the Polish parliamentary elections from polling stations across Britain. Our vote on what happens back home is very likely to make or break our relationship with the EU.
This is because the biggest opposition party, Law and Justice, which leads the current polls, remains rather ambivalent towards the Union and Poland’s place in it. It welcomed the funds that Poland receives from the EU budget to improve the country’s infrastructure and living conditions. However, it continues to oppose Europe’s role in its domestic economy and policies and to veto various policies decided in Brussels, be it on climate changes policies or on stricter rules against domestic violence.
Meanwhile, an equally important debate for us is taking place right now in Britain, as the campaign ahead of a referendum on the British membership in the EU kicks off this month.
Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, some 850,000 Poles have come to Britain in search of work and a better life for themselves - a number greater than the entire population of Manchester. According to data from 2011 census, Polish is now the second most widely spoken language in England.
Over the years, the Polish community has contributed to an almost every area of the British economy. And despite promises from various political groups in Poland that the domestic employment opportunities would improve and people will be able to earn a decent living, so many of my countrymen still leave Poland behind every year and move to Britain.
Starting life over here has never been easy for most of us, even for those equipped with good University degrees. We usually still begin by doing Britain’s lowest-paid but nevertheless necessary jobs, such as cleaning, working in bars and restaurants, in hospitals, in the police or on building sites. But some of the more ambitious and somehow lucky ones amongst us are now opening their own businesses and often employ British people themselves.
Thanks to EU membership, Britain and Poland – the EU’s largest and fastest developing country – have easy access to mutual cross-border trade. All of this means that, should Britain chose to leave the EU, Britain's economy and crucial institutions, such as the NHS, are likely to suffer from a shortage of staff if EU citizens are blocked from coming into the country.
And it’s not all about work - so many Polish women give birth to children who will most likely become British citizens, contributing to the economy and society. Polish people bring a new culture and their own unique values to British society and the majority find it easy to assimilate with the British lifestyle, form relationships and work alongside each other.
As a journalist, my job is to build a link between the British people and the Polish diaspora. The latter can be hard to reach, often due to the language barrier, but sometimes also due to the oblivious attitude some of the Polish migrants have towards what happens in British politics and how it affects their everyday lives and political rights.
Over the years, immigration has shaken the British sense of identity, with UKIP capturing the social anxiety around the issue, pushing for restrictions on the number of foreigners coming into the UK. Although British people have been largely very welcoming to Poles, particularly in open-minded and multicultural London, any escalation of this hostile immigration rhetoric is likely to affect us in the coming months.
This shift won't necessarily be reflected in attitudes towards Poles and other EU migrants currently living here. However, should Britain head for the exit, we would no longer feel as welcomed here. This can be problematic for many who over the years created a home in Britain for themselves and their families. And with looming elections back in Poland and potential changes ahead, feeling at home in either country may become difficult for many of us.
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