I have had an enquiry from someone who follows closely UK immigration issues asking about the policy issues surrounding the opening of the UK labour market to Poles in 2004 when Poland joined the EU:
Did the UK government encourage mass Polish immigration into the UK?
Well, not really.
What happened was this.
Parts of the Blair government were very nervous about a tidal wave of Poles and other Eastern Europeans washing over the UK once we opened our Labour markets unconditionally.
Or rather they were nervous about the Conservatives making a big row about it after Jack Straw announced the policy in 2003. The more so since most other EU countries in a show of noisy EU anti-solidarity made clear that they would not open their labour markets unconditionally.
Which meant that whatever tendency there was for millions of Poles and Czechs and Slovaks and the rest to storm out from their respective homelands to look for jobs would be funnelled mainly in our direction, making the tidal wave even more fast, big and scary.
So intense consultations took place round Whitehall – should the UK row back on this commitment?
PM Blair took a breezy decision. Let it rip.
Previous experience with Portugal and Spain suggested that there would be a surge of interest (and people) but in due course it would all calm down without too many problems. But he threw a small bone to anti-immigration fears by setting up a ‘registration scheme’ for new arrivals with a view to at least having some sort of numbers to use in subsequent debates on the issue. Other administrative devices were used to try to stop people coming over to UK and promptly claiming benefits.
Thus it transpired that I as Ambassador had to go along to the then Polish Interior Minister Jozef Oleksy to break the official news of our keenly awaited decision. Oleksy previously had been Polish Prime Minister, but had an unerring knack of attracting controversy and scandals – a droll and unconventional figure by most former communist standards.
I pompously told Oleksy that I had the honour to inform the Polish Government that HMG had taken an important decision concerning the UK labour market after Poland’s EU accession in May 2004, namely:
- The labour market would be opened unconditionally with immediate effect on 1 May 2004.
- Any Poles who wished to travel to the UK to live or work could do so with out a visa.
- Moreover, an effective amnesty would be given to all Poles who had been living in the UK and working illegally.
- All Poles seeking to work in the UK would be expected to register under a new scheme, but registration was not a condition for getting a job.
Oleksy looked at me in amazement and said in Polish: "Gdzie tkwi haczyk?" What’s the catch?
"No haczyk," I replied. "It’s as simple as that."
Oleksy simply did not believe me. He was sure that just as most EU capitals were announcing different severe restrictions on Polish workers after Poland’s EU accession, the UK had to do the same. There had to be a catch with those tricky Brits!
He kept pressing: "Gdzie tkwi haczyk?"
I assured him that there really was no haczyk.
We meant it. Unconditional opening with immediate effect after Poland’s accession. The Brits were simply generous, open-hearted people. The Poles might like to remember who their real European friends were after this.
That’s how the Polish Flood started.
But by 2009 as the UK economy drooped many were heading back home.
In the great sweep of things, Tony Blair got this one just right.
Ten years from now, let alone twenty or fifty or one hundred, the whole episode will have been forgotten. Those Poles who have stayed in the UK will be doing well, often paying taxes and generally acting as a force for good sense and intelligent conservative values. If any country wants immigrants, get Poles.
Although in a famous telegram to London I did warn Whitehall that this was coming the UK’s way – whether we liked it or not. (I’ll write this up separately).
Unfortunately there were risks for Poles coming to our country, as the families of Anna Brandt, Karolina Gluck and Monika Sochocka so tragically found out.
For most others the experience seems to have been positive and helpful, with lots of Polish compliments to the UK on its easy-going ways and lack of bureaucracy(!).
And let’s not forget that a while ago we were exporting our unemployed people to Poland in large numbers to look for work.
These things come and go.