Berenika Grabowska: Last week, you expressed thanks to Polish doctors and nurses living in the British Isles and working in the NHS (British health service) for their involvement in the fight against the coronavirus. This would suggest that Poles are still very active on the British Isles. What is the current situation of Poles after Brexit, both in general and in this context?
Arkady Rzegocki: All healthcare workers, carers and volunteers are making sure that we get the necessary help if and when we need it. Their sacrifice and selflessness deserve our utmost gratitude. Among them are thousands of Polish people, and the whole of Poland is very proud of that fact. They are great ambassadors of our country in the United Kingdom and represent the best there is in us Poles. Despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, our community is, of course, still very active. Our lives have changed considerably, but the precious qualities for which we are known and valued in this country – hard work, expertise, openness and kindness – will always be there. Just like during the normal times, now, in the times of crisis, Poles are contributing to the British society, economy and culture – it is just that they are doing so from their homes.
Currently, Poles who wish to remain in the UK after Brexit need to apply for settled status – that has not changed. They need to do so by the end of June 2021 if there is a Brexit with a deal, and by the end of 2020 if there is a no-deal Brexit. Until then, their rights will not change. At the start of 2021, a new immigration system will come into force, which will require EU citizens to hold settled or pre-settled status. As Polish Ambassador, I would like for Polish citizens to feel best at home and so I encourage Poles to consider the possibility of returning to Poland in the future, but this, of course, is each person’s individual choice. I want what’s best for my compatriots.
2. The latest Clicktrans.pl report shows that 90% of migration between the UK and Poland in 2019 was moving to Poland, while in 2015 it was only 55%. Can we expect that when the current situation related to the coronavirus pandemic is over, the trend of Poles returning from the UK to Poland will continue?
It is difficult to predict what is going to happen because we do not know how large an impact the coronavirus pandemic is going to have on people’s lives. Certainly, over the last three years we have been observing a growing interest among our nationals in the UK in returning to Poland. Official British statistics confirm that this movement is taking place on a large scale – according to them, around 150,000 Polish citizens have left the UK. We are also regularly hearing anecdotal evidence in our conversations with Polish parishes, organisations and Saturday schools which shows that the perspective of Britain’s Poles on Poland has changed substantially, and they now see new opportunities back home. I am glad to hear this.
The situation with the coronavirus has also resulted in many Poles returning to Poland, including around 14,000 onboard the Lot do Domu repatriation flights organised in March and April by Poland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and LOT Polish Airlines.
3. What is the current process of applying for settled status by Poles? How many people have submitted such an application so far? We know that at the beginning this number was not significant and Poles living in the UK for many years were not aware of this obligation. The Polish Embassy in London has been strongly committed to helping them.
Poles and all other EU citizens wishing to remain in the UK after Brexit need to apply for settled status by downloading an application on their phone or tablet (technical requirements are available online), scanning their biometric passport or biometric Polish identity card, and following the process within the application. Currently, due to the coronavirus pandemic, there are delays in Home Office’s decisions on the applications.
Additionally, the applicants are asked not to send additional documents via post, which they had to do previously if asked by the system. The documents that had been sent before 25 March 2020 will be considered and sent back, but there will be a delay. If the documents, were sent after 25 March 2020, they will be returned as soon as possible. The application is connected to the HMRC and Department for Work and Pensions databases, so people who are employed, pay taxes as well as those using their pension should not need to provide additional documents confirming that they reside in the UK. The ID document scanner locations, where applicants could also go with their documents and confirm their identity, has been temporarily suspended. Non-governmental organisations offering official assistance with the process are still providing the service, though they have limited their activity to mostly help lines and online services.
The application can be made by those EU citizens who will have lived in the UK before 31 December 2020. It is the same for the extended family, but closer family can join the applicant after that date. People who have been living in the UK for five years (at least six months in each year) are eligible for settled status, with those living here for a shorter period of time eligible for pre-settled status, which then allows them to apply for settled status.
The latest data available shows that 639,200 Polish nationals applied for settled status by February 2020. It is true that initially many Poles were not aware that they had to apply for the status or did not even know that such a scheme exists. This is why we have held a number of meetings with the Polish diaspora in numerous places across the UK to raise this awareness, and in September 2019 I wrote a letter addressed to all Poles in the UK appealing for them to secure their future status. The letter was met with widespread media coverage and the desired effect in the form of a considerable uptake in the number of applications, and now we can say that the majority of Poles in the UK have applied for the status, but, of course, we will not stop in our efforts to inform about the need to apply for the status until every Polish citizen has done so.
4. Can Poles expect any restrictions after Brexit? Can their life on the Isles change significantly?
The lives of Poles living in the UK will not change until the end of this year. As specified in the Withdrawal Agreement, the rights of EU citizens living in the UK on 31 December 2020 who will have applied for settled status by then will be protected. The British government has declared that tourists will also be able to visit the UK the same as now until then. It has also stated that the rights of EU citizens after Brexit will be protected, but the negotiations on the final deal are still ongoing. From 2021, there is set to be a new immigration system, which will limit the ability to come to the UK for work and study.
5. There are still many Poles in the UK who are hesitant to decide whether or not to return to Poland and there are also many who have decided to stay and are still not sure if it was a right decision. If you met one of them, what would you advise him or her?
As mentioned, it is each individual’s choice, though if it is suitable to them and they do feel best at home, I would like to encourage considering a return to Poland. What I can say is that those who may be unsure about the economic or job prospects in Poland should not be worried, because the country has seen a remarkable transformation since it joined the EU. The unemployment is very low and our economy has grown uninterruptedly for nearly 30 years. Despite the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic, Poland is well poised when it comes to mitigating the consequences of the crisis, also having healthy levels of public and private debt. So if you wish to return to Poland, we are waiting for you with open arms.
And, of course, Polish-British economic relations are going from strength to strength. Since 2005, Polish exports to the UK have tripled and UK exports to Poland have doubled, with our trading relationship being worth £17 billion a year. Poles have now established more than 60,000 businesses in Britain, while the UK is the sixth largest investor in Poland. This means that Poles wishing to keep that Polish-British connection can easily do so!
6. There is also the voice of the new generation of Poles living in the UK, it is no longer the post-migration generation of the Polish community, but often people who were already born in the UK. One can see that they have not forgotten about their family history and often return to Poland, building a Polish-British understanding. What would you say about them?
I am proud of them and am grateful for their attitude. It is important that, just like their parents and grandparents, they nurture the Polish spirit in the UK and then build upon our historically strong relations for the good of our nations. They are the future, so we are counting on them being true ambassadors of Poland.
7. Coming back to Brexit – what could be the role of Great Britain after Brexit? Does leaving the European Union mean greater or lesser involvement of Great Britain in world affairs?
The United Kingdom is an important partner for the European Union, and an important player on the international arena. We hope that it can remain a key partner for the EU in the future and that we can continue our strong financial, economic and scientific cooperation as well as our cooperation within NATO.
8. And what does it mean for Poland? What is the future of Polish-British relations?
Poland is sad that the UK has left the European Union, but our bilateral relations, forged over hundreds of years and in the most difficult of times, will remain unchanged. We want to keep strengthening our ties with the UK in all currently implemented formats. The UK remains an important foreign partner for Poland with whom we share common interests and a point of view on many international issues in the European and global dimension. Frequent meetings of the Prime Ministers of our two countries as well as Ministers are the best proof of this. The most important meeting formats include the annual intergovernmental consultations, the meetings of ministers of foreign affairs and defence – the so-called Quadriqa consultations – and the civic society Belvedere Forum, which is a non-governmental platform for Poles and Brits from all walks of life, including scientists, businesspeople and students, to meet, discuss issues and exchange ideas. Our science and cultural relations mean that Poland is becoming better known in the UK all the time. Our military relations have also been flourishing, recognising Poland’s military importance in the world as the Eastern flank of NATO, with 150 British troops stationed there, and Poland and Britain signing a bilateral defence treaty in 2017 (it is only the second such treaty that the UK had signed with a European Union country). With all those formats in place as well as our partnership within NATO, I am sure Polish-British relations will remain strong in the future.
The interview was conducted on the 18th May 2020 and was published by The Warsaw Institute Review.