At first, Brexit was seen in Poland as a glorious but chaotic farce. As strange as it sounds, three long, grim years after the referendum, the whole thing seemed, to them, like a glorious chaotic farce. Most of them supported Poland's membership of the EU but the irreverent Nigel Farage was more relatable than a bunch of uptight bureaucrats; they could at least imagine having a beer with him. As reality sunk in, and the months ground by, these comical aspects paled. Poles are now as bored hearing about Brexit as many Brits.
The national conservative Polish government has been in an interesting position when it comes to Brexit. Ideologically, as a member of the EU's awkward squad who have locked horns with Brussels over the ruling Law and Justice party's controversial judicial reforms and refusal to accept North African migrants, it has at least some kinship with the cause. If Britain leaves the EU, however, it could disrupt Poland's trading partnerships, endanger its migrants' residential status and mean that Poland loses a potential ally against the richer and more liberal French and German states. As a result, president Andrzej Duda has voiced his official opposition to Brexit.
Opinions of Poles that I have spoken to have varied. Liberal Poles lament the potential weakening of the financial and legislative security provided by the Union, while more conservative Poles have mixed feelings. Artur, a right-winger from Warsaw, feels “some schadenfreude" on seeing the liberal European Union in trouble, but fears that Poland will lose “an ally against EU federalisation plans”. He doubts that Brexit will shift Britain's cultural trajectory given that it remains “one of the more progressive-oriented countries in Europe anyway.”
All of this could slide off a British person’s back but the position of Polish migrants is more significant. More than 900,000 Polish nationals live in Britain, making them the nation's highest immigrant group. Their numbers have fallen slightly in recent years, due to insecurity surrounding their presence in Britain and because of a growing Polish economy. Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki has welcomed their return and the boost that it has given to Polish labour markets. Hundreds of thousands of other migrants, though, have made Britain their home. Jobs have been found here, businesses have been built here, and friendships and relationships have been formed here.
Of course, EU nationals have been offered the chance to apply for “settled status”. Some, like the renowned chef Damian Wawrzyniak, protested against the idea of “applying" to stay in their own homes but the British authorities at least promised that the process would be thoroughly inclusive and blissfully simple. In bureaucracy, however, everything is complicated.
So far, more Poles have applied for settled status than people from any other nation. But as Jakub Krupa from the Polish Social and Cultural Association community centre in London has observed, Poles have been among the slowest EU nationals to apply, with fewer than 25 per cent of them currently registered. Barbara Drozdowicz of the East European Resource Centre points out that Poles sometimes struggle with the online system due to limited access, limited understanding and the unavailability of necessary document. Krupa adds that Poles can take an overconfident attitude of “jakoś to będzie”, which translates as “things will somehow work out in the end.”
The East European Resource Centre has proposed that the deadline for applications be extended to December 2021, along with greater provision of “essential awareness and information” (in English and Polish, for as, Krupa says, one can have good communicative English without having a confident grasp of officialese) and “guidance on application process”, to help EU nationals avoid another “Windrush” scenario. “Taking into account sheer numbers of people potentially concerned,” an EERC report concludes, this “would be a disastrous outcome.”
Some people's sympathy might be limited. If people live in a country for years and years, why not apply for citizenship? If they have two years, why not figure out the online process? If they have been living in a foreign country as a non-citizen, why do they not have a solid record of their residence?
Well, some people are old, or young, or disabled, but I do admit that migrants can be careless about their residential status. I say that because as an Englishman in Poland, belatedly scrambling to assemble a record of my own residential status, I have been preposterously careless about it. But does that mean people should fear being made to leave their homes? I think that would be a remarkably cruel overreaction. If there is a nation where people are ruthlessly judged by their bureaucratic assiduousness then I do not want to live there (well, there is – China, and I do not want to live there.)
Even EU nationals who have navigated the process and who have an impeccable record of their time in the UK have sometimes struggled. The aforementioned chef Mr Wawrzyniak has lived in Britain for 15 years, owns restaurants and has cooked for the Queen but was still only granted pre-settled status, which expires after five years.
As an Englishman in Europe I have an obvious personal interest in things not getting ugly. But still, there is no sense in making life difficult for our European cousins who have worked hard to build homes in the innocent if perhaps complacent belief that the right to remain was unquestionably theirs – or in irritating valuable allies in the process.