WARSAW, Poland—An odd commercial appeared on Polish TV in early 2008. It ostensibly shows English actor John Cleese rehearsing a pitch on behalf of a Polish bank. But once he hears the specifics of the offer, he trashes the script and insists on signing up for a loan for himself. The director demurs; Cleese lacks Polish citizenship and so cannot qualify. The British icon counters that he loves pirogi and speaks Polish. As proof, the actor yells out “Guten Morgen!”—revealing he has mistaken German for Polish.
It’s not hard to see why this spot (which is almost entirely in English with Polish subtitles) would appeal. For the last four years, Poles have served as one of the British press’s favorite whipping boys. When Poland joined the European Union in 2004, the United Kingdom was just one of three countries, along with Ireland and Sweden, that granted Poles and other new EU members the right to work. The British government estimated that about 15,000 Poles would move to England to work every year. Instead, a total of about 1 million have spent time in the United Kingdom. And while there are signs that they buoyed the economy, they also depressed wages in low-skill sectors, and some British parents have groused about Poles crowding their kids’ schools. Against that backdrop, the sight of a Brit dying to join a club only Poles can, and looking like a rube in the process, must bring a frisson of satisfaction.
When it comes to migration, Poland occupies an unusual position. While most Western European countries are figuring out how to handle the arrival of foreigners, Poland has dealt with the opposite quandary: By some estimates, 2 million of its 38 million citizens have worked abroad in the last four years. Some were gone for short stints, and there are signs that many who left for longer periods are returning, but nonetheless, their absence has left a hole back home. Thousands of Polish doctors have decamped, which means the queues at Polish health clinics are growing. The iconic “Polish plumber” was deployed in a French anti-EU ad campaign, but the term has gained currency in Britain as well, in part because, well, there are a lot of Polish handymen in the country. Households in Warsaw would love to catch sight of one. Poles complain that it’s impossible to find a trained electrician or building contractor, and if you do snag one, prices are sky-high.
Still, when I visited the Polish capital and the industrial town of Lodz in late February, I didn’t see a country in crisis. Warsaw’s skyline is dotted with cranes, testifying to a building craze. The country is co-hosting the 2012 European soccer championships, and a massive renovation of sports complexes, roads, and tourist facilities is under way. The economy grew more than 6 percent in 2007. The fact that Poles can legally work in a handful of European countries has helped slash unemployment at home: While one-fifth of Poles were out of work four years ago, the current unemployment rate is about half that.
I lived in London for from early 2007 to spring 2008, and after reading a slew of negative stories about the Polish influx, I figured people in the mother country would be distraught that so many of their compatriots had headed for the exits. But the Poles I met weren’t particularly perturbed. As several people pointed out to me, there is a long tradition of Poles pulling up stakes. Two of the country’s greatest luminaries, Marie Curie and Frédéric Chopin, established themselves in Paris. Poles moved by the hundreds of thousands to the United States—that’s why there are 9 million Polish-Americans today.
The recent migration of Poles to Britain was not the first time they established a toehold there. After World War II, Polish military men who had fought alongside the Allies remained on the island. London housed a government-in-exile until the collapse of the Polish Communist government in 1990. Some of the descendants of this diaspora have done extremely well: British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, for example, is the grandson of a Polish veteran.
The Poles who joined this exile community in Britain more recently went looking for better-paid work. But that wasn’t the only incentive. As Ania Heasley, the Polish-born director of a London recruiting agency, explained, many Poles who came of age during the Communist years felt they had been denied a way of life that was rightfully theirs. “There is a feeling that we had helped the Allies during the war and that if peace treaties had been negotiated differently, we would never have been a part of the Eastern bloc,” she told me. “There was a longing for a better lifestyle, one that should have been ours in the first place.”
To be sure, most of the departees are too young to have searing memories of the war and the Communist aftermath. A British Home Office report found that 40 percent of the Poles in Britain are under 25. For this crew, Britain’s appeal may be its more progressive culture. “If someone is gay in England, it’s not a big deal,” Marta Rudnicka, a winsome 21-year-old university student in Lodz told me in impeccable English. “Here, the former education minister wanted it taught in schools that homosexuality is immoral. And most people didn’t protest.” Rudnicka plans to leave Poland when she finishes her degree. As she points out, she could work in a bar in England and be assured of supporting herself, while in Poland she might struggle to scrape by on a teacher’s salary.
The economics, however, no longer make a move across the continent as enticing. In 2004, the exchange rate was seven złotys to the pound; currently, it is a little more than four. The expatriates are taking notice, and some are heading back to Poland. They aren’t the only ones moving: Workers from farther east, particularly Ukraine, are arriving in Poland.
For now, Poland still sends out more people than it pulls in. But the experiences of Spain and Ireland show that countries that traditionally exported workers can become immigration magnets in just a few years. As the European Union expands, the Polish plumber could be retired as the all-purpose “cheap worker” stereotype. Perhaps the Bulgarian tradesman will take his place. Maybe one day John Cleese will appear in an ad where he is desperate to be accepted as a native of Sofia.