WARSAW, Poland – Poles, who have settled in large numbers in Britain in recent years, expressed confusion and apprehension as Britain formally triggered the process to leave the European Union.
They rue being cut off from Europe’s most attractive job market, while some even fear that weakened European unity leaves them more vulnerable to a belligerent Russia.
“It makes me very sad,” said Anna Koziolek, 51, a Warsaw airport employee who traveled to Britain to visit friends on Wednesday, the day that Britain officially launched the exit process.
Brexit means “a closed path to a better life,” she said before boarding. “It will be harder to travel to work there. Everything will be harder. Finding work will be harder. What we earn here is not enough for a decent life. We need to work abroad.”
Seeing her off at the airport was her husband, Adam Koziolek, 53, who also worries that Poland “will be poorer” because the EU will lose the financial support of a rich Western contributor. Those EU subsidies have fueled dramatic economic development in Poland in recent years.
To be sure, some people in the proud Central European nation sympathize with Britain’s decision to restore greater national sovereignty, a priority for Poland’s own nationalist government.
But it appears that most Poles have little to celebrate. After decades behind the Iron Curtain, they eagerly seized the chance to emigrate for work or study when they joined the bloc in 2004. No country drew more Poles than the U.K., which beckoned with jobs aplenty and much higher wages than most could ever dream of earning at home. Young Poles often speak English and also adapt quickly to life in Britain.
Experts estimate that there are anywhere from 850,000 to somewhere over 1 million Poles living in Britain — people who have built families, homes and new lives and feel little desire to return home.
Many of their relatives back in Poland have also come to depend on financial help sent from abroad.
“I think that current levels of uncertainty and anxiety connected to this are very high, much higher than even the biggest pessimists could have expected,” said Jacek Kucharczyk, the director of the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank in Warsaw. “This is related to the fact that the British government treats EU citizens, including Poles, as a bargaining card in the negotiations with the EU.”
Prime Minister Theresa May rebuffed pressures in Britain to guarantee before negotiations that all EU citizens could remain.
Until those negotiations are concluded — the target is 2019 — no doors will be closed to citizens of other EU countries. But after that?
Amid the uncertainty, officials from De Montefort University in Leicester were in Warsaw on Wednesday to reassure upcoming Polish students that the university will continue to welcome them despite Brexit, making available the same loans, grants and fee levels as before.
“I have basically been reassuring them that our country is still open for business,” the university’s vice-chancellor, Dominic Shellard, told The Associated Press after delivering that message to dozens of young Poles who will begin attending the school in the fall.
Students interviewed by the AP said that message of openness made them feel welcome — in contrast to the punch in the gut they felt when Britain voted last year to leave the EU.
“Many of our classmates came to school crying,” said Malgorzata Swiderska, an 18-year-old from Lodz, recalling that day in late June. She said they feared they would never be able to study in Britain and felt “unwanted.”
Another student, Wojciech Choinski, also 18 and from Lodz, said the prospect of Brexit actually gave him greater impetus to study there.
“This thought at the back of my head — that this opportunity can be lost in two years’ time — it pushed me toward my goals to study in the U.K., to visit this country that I’ve always wanted to visit,” Choinski said. “That just really gave me the kick to go there.”
Monika Scislowska contributed to this report.