For the last 15 years Mateusz has lived, studied and worked in the UK, one of the many Poles who left their country in the early 2000s in search of opportunities abroad.
But now, unsettled by Britain’s vote to leave the EU and juggling a young family with the rising cost of living, he is thinking about returning to Poland.
“I’ve spent many years in Britain and I consider this my home. It is heartbreaking for me, because my family has connections here — we all have friends,” said the 37-year-old father of two, who did not want to give his full name. “It’s very difficult, but you have to make a decision.”
Mateusz, who studied in Sheffield before landing a job as a public sector economist, was part of a huge wave of largely young Poles who took advantage of the freedom to work and live around Europe after Poland joined the EU in 2004. By 2018 around 2.5m were working abroad.
In 2018 that number fell for the first time in eight years — by 85,000, according to Poland’s statistics agency. And with Poland’s population forecast to shrink 12 per cent by 2050, the ruling Law and Justice party is keen to use the central European nation’s booming economy to lure more émigrés home to help combat shortages in the Polish labour market.
“Our income per head is at least 5 per cent lower as a result of this emigration. This is a huge tax that Poland has paid to the rich countries of the west,” Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said last month. “Such a tax from poor to rich is not normal. Countries with high standards have to put a stop to this.”
According to Polish statistics, the drop in the number of Poles abroad is almost entirely because of a decline in the number living in the UK. Migration data is notoriously imprecise, and made harder to interpret by the fact that many Poles have applied for British citizenship to hedge against Brexit. But both Polish and UK data suggest the number of Poles in Britain has fallen by several tens of thousands over the past 18 months.
Jakub Krupa, a board member at POSK, the UK’s largest Polish community centre, said that while the prospect of Brexit had been a “trigger” forcing Poles who had not previously done so to think about their long-term plans, the key reasons Poles leave tend to be more personal.
“It’s more that people realise that they’ve achieved what they wanted in the UK, be it saved some money for buying or building a property in Poland, or developing their career a bit, or starting a family,” he said. “They’re saying: ‘I’ve reached the stage where I’ve been here for years now . . . and maybe it’s time to move back to Poland, closer to parents or other family members.’”
For Maria Rosnowska, who moved to Warsaw last December after 16 years in Britain, the reason was a job overseeing her company’s central European business.
“I thought: ‘Why not? This will be a good opportunity. It will give me a chance to be closer to my family,’” she said. “This was what made me come back — it wasn’t . . . that [the government] were trying to promote people coming back. I’m probably not the typical person that would vote for them.”
Karol Skrzyszowski, who left London in 2016 and now assesses credit risk at HSBC in Krakow, was drawn by the increasing availability of good jobs — a reflection of Poland’s success in persuading companies ranging from JPMorgan to Google to move operations to the country.
But he was also swayed by the cost of living, which remains far lower than in western Europe — even in big cities like Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk, where new bars and cafés and shiny office blocks have sprung up in large numbers in recent years.
“I was thinking about either settling down in London or moving back. And one of the main reasons was that when I saved up enough money for a flat in London, I realised that could easily buy me a nice flat in Krakow,” he said.
For Tomasz Fiks, who worked as a kitchen porter and waiter in the City before becoming a personal trainer, the move to Wroclaw, a smaller city in western Poland, was also about quality of life.
“I really enjoyed London but it kind of felt a bit overwhelming,” he said, adding that the development of Poland’s economy during his years abroad made the choice easier. “I feel that there is so much more opportunity than ever before.”
Even so, for many Poles who have been abroad for years, adapting to Poland’s more conservative society can be a bumpy process. Ms Rosnowska recounts experiencing a culture shock, while Mateusz said he could not envisage returning to his native Rzeszow, a midsized city in Poland’s poorer east, and would only consider a bigger, more multinational setting such as Warsaw.
“For many people, moving back to Poland is not a return, but another migration,” said Mr Krupa.
For this reason, a big chunk of the 900,000 Poles still in the UK could yet remain. Others who do leave may pick another EU destination rather than Poland. But having now adjusted to her new surroundings, Ms Rosnowska is optimistic that those who do return can make a contribution to their new old country.
“What is valuable when you have moved from abroad is an openness to change and different cultures and different ways of working,” she said. “And this is what the Poles who live in the UK can bring.”
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