I guess the hate crime epidemic that gripped Britain after Brexit hasn’t put that many people off, with new figures showing net migration of 273,000 in the three months to September 2016. That represents a decline of 49,000, of which 12,000 is due to an increase in eastern Europeans heading home (39,000, as opposed to 27,000 the previous year), which I imagine is less to do with any hostile atmosphere in Britain than the booming economy in Poland. No doubt that’s the way it will be presented, though – ‘Poles fleeing the Brexit terror’.
In my view, the Government is doing a lot of things wrong at the moment, chiefly its refusal to unilaterally guarantee the rights of EU citizens; I’d also invest a lot more in improving Brand Britain by making the country a friendlier place for visitors (also, increase the amount of time children have to be taught foreign language in school).
But the theory that Brexit transformed Britain from a multicultural paradise to a hate-state seem vastly exaggerated. Anecdotally there has been upturn in xenophobic hostility since the vote – I’ve heard of people hearing their first racist remarks in years – and I think it’s true there is a wider pattern; any tribal victory is likely to embolden the more extreme fringes to act on their violent urges. It’s hard to analyse because for some reason people seem to take social media rumours as fact (and like Sweden’s rape statistics, a lot depends on how you define hate crime.)
Whether or not Britain is less friendly though, Polish migration was going to dry up anyway, and even go into reverse, because Poland has awesome growth rates. In 2016, Polish GDP per capita reached two-thirds of western European levels, the first time since the early days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and it’s inevitably going to get even better; for this the EU must take some credit.
Poland also has one of the best education systems in Europe – it consistently scores near the top of the PISA league table – and it also doesn’t have the, er, demographic challenges now facing Britain, France and Germany. One of the big contests in the 21st century will be the competition to attract the talented ten-thousandth, the highly mobile global elite; because the top earners tend to be at the age where they have children in education, making a country attractive to families is hugely important. A European nation with good schools and zero terrorism is going to be highly appealing.
Paris has been desperately trying to attract London’s elite since the vote in June, and last week Valerie Pecresse, president of the Paris region, pointed out: ‘When was the last time you took your partner off for a weekend in Frankfurt?’ Sure, but the sight of soldiers with machine guns everywhere does tend to dampen the romance a bit, and tourism to France is way down, especially from the Far East. And anyway, Krakow is a pretty good place to go for a weekend. The only dark cloud on Poland’s horizon, as the old Scottish joke goes, is ‘just wait till you see the neighbours they’re getting’. But all the indicators are looking pretty good, and thanks to the many personal ties made since 2004, maybe we’ll soon see more Brits moving to Poland than vice versa, like in the 17th century, when there were an estimated 30,000 Scots living in the country.