By Stanley Bill
Poland is faced with a stark choice: either it will be smaller and poorer or it will be more diverse. This is the inevitable conclusion to draw from the country’s present demographic situation. With a fertility rate of just over 1.3 – one of the lowest in the world – Poland’s population will shrink without increased immigration, bringing negative consequences for economic growth and capacity to support an ageing society.
At present, there may be as many as two million Ukrainians working in Poland, filling gaps in the labour market. Many of them could soon leave for other European destinations, with Germany already preparing to liberalize its rules to attract them. Poland will need to find replacement workers from further afield, even if some Polish nationals also return home from Brexit Britain. The problem will only intensify as the effects of the demographic crisis become more severe.
Poland’s response to this dilemma remains unclear. On the one hand – as Notes from Poland has previously explained – the national-conservative government is presiding over the largest wave of immigration in Poland’s modern history. On the other, “diversity” and “multiculturalism” remain sensitive terms, with a high level of suspicion of cultural difference in Polish society, encouraged by the government’s own rhetoric. Culturally similar Ukrainians are generally acceptable, but there is concern about the increasing number of migrants from South Asia, some of them highly visible as Uber Eats delivery riders on the streets of Warsaw.
The government has found itself under attack from nationalists – including organisers of the controversial March of Independence – for its labour-driven immigration policy. The leadership has shown great sensitivity to these negative perceptions, even dismissing a deputy minister who was too open in his public comments about the need for more immigrants to underpin Poland’s future prosperity. Long-term demographic and economic interests are coming into conflict with cultural fears.
Poland – like much of Central and Eastern Europe – differs fundamentally from many Western European countries in its present homogeneity. But this difference has a history. More importantly, this history is still in motion, as global economic forces and new flows of people change realities in both east and west.
To shed some more light both on Poland’s specificity and on its participation in broader processes, I would like to compare it with one of Europe’s more diverse states: the United Kingdom. While Poland ponders the dilemmas of demographics and development, Britain is turning away from almost half a century of European integration, partly in response to popular concerns about immigration. In very different ways, both countries are being reshaped and challenged by similar forces. Britain has chosen economic self-harm to preserve a certain vision of cultural and political independence. Poland has its own choices to make.
Legacies of empire
Today the United Kingdom is a multicultural country, while Poland is among the most ethnically and culturally homogeneous states in Europe. Yet this is a relatively new state of affairs. In 1918, the new Polish state that rose from the ruins of the Russian, German and Austro-Hungarian empires was multi-ethnic, multicultural, multilingual and multi-confessional. Almost one-third of Polish citizens belonged to Ukrainian, Jewish, German, Belarusian, Lithuanian and other minorities.
Not only was Poland much more heterogeneous than the Britain of the same period, but its diversity even eclipses the contemporary UK, where over 80% of the population still identifies as “White British.” So what happened to the multicultural Poland and how did multicultural Britain develop? In short, these diverging processes were both closely connected with the historical vagaries of imperial projects.
Poland’s diversity was destroyed by two aggressive imperial powers between 1939 and 1945. Nazi Germany was responsible for the murder of the vast majority of Poland’s Jewish population of almost three million people, along with millions of non-Jewish Polish citizens. After the war, the Soviet Union redrew Poland’s borders to exclude the regions mostly inhabited by Ukrainians, Belarusians and Lithuanians, while deporting many others together with large numbers of Germans. Of the small surviving Jewish population, thousands were forced to leave Poland in 1968 during the so-called “anti-Zionist” campaign led by a nationalist faction of the communist party.The Poland that resulted was almost exclusively ethnically Polish, primarily as a direct consequence of the destruction and transformation imposed by German and Soviet imperial projects.
Britain’s multiculturalism, on the other hand, developed after the disintegration of its own imperial project. In 1939, Jews constituted the largest ethnic minority in the United Kingdom, representing less than 1% of the total population. After 1945, as the Empire collapsed, waves of migrants from Britain’s former colonial possessions in South Asia, the Caribbean and Africa changed the face of British society. Later, after the accession of the new Central and Eastern European member states to the EU from 2004, new groups of migrants – with Poles in the majority – joined Spanish, Italian, Portuguese and Greek arrivals. While the impositions of external imperial powers made Poland homogeneous, the end of Britain’s own imperial power and its subsequent European integration made the UK diverse.
These comparisons only go so far. Interwar Polish “multiculturalism” was very different from the contemporary British kind. After all, Poland’s “national minorities” were not new arrivals, but rather native groups who had lived on the same lands for centuries, and then found themselves within the borders of the Polish state as citizens in 1918. From this perspective, the Ukrainian and Jewish minorities in interwar Poland were no different in their status from the Welsh or Scottish minorities who made the United Kingdom a much more diverse country than the broad category of “White British” would suggest. Britain’s present multiculturalism, on the other hand, is the product of large-scale migration of groups that had never lived there before in any significant numbers. Interwar Poland experienced no similar phenomenon of mass immigration from beyond its borders.
Despite these key differences, the similarities between the two multicultural contexts remain striking. Contemporary Britain has witnessed ongoing and often heated debates over the integration of ethnic and religious minorities, and over the very nature of British identity. Similarly, interwar Poland saw fierce conflict between differing visions of Polish identity. On the one hand, Marshal Józef Piłsudski was the figurehead of an inclusive idea assuming that national minorities could be loyal Polish citizens while maintaining attachments to their distinct cultural traditions. On the other hand, the integral nationalist camp led by Roman Dmowski argued that diversity weakened the state, and that national identity should be more narrowly defined. The destruction of the war ensured that Dmowski’s vision would eventually be realized in the form of the mono-ethnic post-war Polish state.
The turn against immigration
In contemporary Britain, the Brexit referendum has brought debates over multiculturalism and migration into a new phase. Anxieties over unprecedentedly high levels of immigration – including the arrival of around a million Poles – were a significant factor in the victory of the Leave campaign. For some Leave voters, these anxieties were at least loosely connected with a sense of negative economic and employment prospects, deteriorating public services, and a loss of direct democratic participation and national sovereignty.
The vote to leave the European Union was ostensibly a vote to “take back control” of national legislation and national borders. The immediate aftermath of the referendum saw a spike in hate crimes committed against Poles and members of other minorities. At the same time, terrorist attacks increased tensions between the majority and Muslim communities. Britain’s multiculturalism still works well in most places most of the time, but it seems to require constant discussion and re-examination.
While multicultural Britain has undergone these shocks and adjustments, Poland has been debating the spectre of a non-existent diversity. Since taking office in 2015, the present government has refused to accept around 6,000 largely Muslim refugees designated under a previously agreed European Union quota system. To explain this position, government ministers have often referred to alleged failings of “multiculturalism” in Western Europe, pointing to terrorist attacks and a supposed inability of Muslim migrants to integrate.
In this context, the government claims that it is protecting Poles from both an imminent security threat and an unsuccessful social model. Public opinion surveys have consistently shown that a significant majority of Poles strongly support the government’s stance. At the same time, immoderate anti-migrant rhetoric from prominent members of the ruling party and the state media have further fuelled this public anxiety.
Poles are fearful of Muslim migrants for a number of reasons. First of all, the terrorist attacks in Western Europe and chaotic images of migrant crowds have made a strong impression. However, the relative homogeneity of contemporary Poland has formed perhaps the most important background and cause of these emotive responses. Many Poles are simply unfamiliar with multicultural environments, and have had little contact with Muslims. Indeed, Pew Research polls conducted across Europe suggest that anti-Muslim sentiment is strongest in countries without substantial Muslim communities. While only a minority of people in Britain, France and Germany express negative sentiments about Muslims, a majority of respondents in Poland and Hungary hold unfavourable views. People naturally fear what they do not know.
Poland has opened up significantly in cultural terms since its full entry into the global system with the end of communist rule in 1989. After decades of limited contact with the non-communist world, its market was flooded with new goods and ideas, accompanied by a trickle of new people. Many Poles took full advantage of opportunities to travel, live and work in multicultural countries like Britain, gaining experience with other cultures and mixed social environments. Nevertheless, Poland itself remained far from diverse when it entered the European Union in 2004. Moreover, it had no immediate history of state promotion of pluralism or of education in tolerant attitudes towards cultural difference.
Modern “multiculturalism” in Europe is a broad ideology (though not always a state policy) associated with a particular historical moment. Ethnic pluralism arose as a social reality in several different variants in post-imperial conditions, together with the rise of globalization and economic neoliberalism. Western European countries accepted migrants from different parts of the world, but especially from former colonial possessions, in large part because their economies were hungry for labour. Britain welcomed Indians, Pakistanis and Jamaicans. Moroccans and Algerians came to France, where assimilation rather than multiculturalism was the official policy. Germany invited guest workers from Turkey and the Balkans. Many of these new arrivals stayed.
As Western European societies changed, new ways of understanding national identity beyond the core ethnic groups became necessary in order to promote social cohesion. In Britain, an official policy of “state multiculturalism” was the response. The very idea of Britishness was expanded to include a wide range of cultural traditions. To a certain extent, this process unfolded organically, as new groups integrated with communities, but it was also driven from above by government initiatives and education programmes.
Multiculturalism in Europe – in the broadest sense – is a specific consequence of a post-imperial, globalized and neoliberal moment from which Poland was initially excluded. Communist Poland was only minimally integrated with global labour flows, markets and liberal ideas. Poland had no empire or former colonial possessions. The country’s economic and cultural liberalization accelerated in the period leading up to the accession to the EU in 2004.
Yet immediately after this historic achievement the foundations of the Europe the country had joined began to sway with the global financial crisis of 2008, the Greek debt crisis, and then the Brexit vote. At the same time, voices against ethnic pluralism, and especially against migrants from the Muslim world, became louder across Western Europe. In 2010 and 2011, Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy all argued separately that “state multiculturalism” had failed. Popular concerns reached a crescendo with the recent European migrant crisis and a series of terrorist attacks by Islamist extremists, most of whom had grown up in Europe.\
The precise relationship between cultural discontent and economic factors is complex and unclear. However, the liberal political consensus and the neoliberal economic order have undoubtedly experienced simultaneous shocks in Europe. In Britain, a sense of economic and political exclusion in certain sectors of society coalesced with feelings of cultural alienation to deliver the Brexit referendum result. Meanwhile, Poles have observed the weakening of a community of values and economic principles they had only just joined.
In the wake of the Greek crisis, most Poles now do not want to adopt the Euro. In the same way, challenges to multicultural and pluralist ideals in Western Europe have contributed to deep suspicions in Poland, which had only just begun to assimilate these concepts to its own mono-ethnic circumstances. The result has been a fearful turn away from the unfamiliar “Other,” even as Pope Francis and certain Polish bishops have exhorted a largely Catholic country to show Christian compassion by welcoming refugees.
So what is the future of multiculturalism and national identity in Poland and the United Kingdom? Britain’s multicultural identity is a social fact that will not change. Nevertheless, immigration levels may fall after Brexit, almost certainly with negative economic consequences for a country that will be hit by the transition on multiple levels. Meanwhile, homogeneous Poland faces crucial dilemmas in a time of labour shortages and a worsening demographic crisis.
Without significant immigration, the shrinking of its population will accelerate, even with generous social redistribution schemes to stimulate the birth rate. Up to two million Ukrainians have so far provided the answer, filling gaps in the labour market and contributing to the impressive growth of the Polish economy. But Germany and other neighbouring countries are already emerging as powerful competitors for Ukrainian workers, and the current situation is not sustainable in the long term for Ukraine itself. New groups of migrants from other places will inevitably take an increasing interest in Poland as the country continues to become more prosperous and attractive. And Poland will need them. The key choice lies between economic interest and fears arising from the post-dependence legacy of homogeneity.
If new immigrants from outside Europe begin to arrive in numbers, Poles will have to decide how to redefine a national identity often based on an assumption of cultural and ethnic similarity. They will find that their own history offers a rich variety of inclusive models of Polishness. From the Golden Age of the diverse Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the sixteenth century through to Józef Piłsudski in the 1920s, the idea of Polishness has very often denoted an attachment to shared civic values rather than to any particular ethnic or religious identity. Poland – perhaps even more than the United Kingdom – has a deep and defining historical tradition of pluralism and tolerance. As the country’s economic and political power continues to grow, the evolution of Polish attitudes towards these liberal values will partly shape their future – and Poland’s – in a Europe without Britain.
This article is an adapted and updated version of an essay first published by the British Council under the title “Multiculturalism and Identity in Britain and Poland” in the collection Crossing Points: UK-Poland. Common Interests, Shared Concerns (2018).
Main image credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Pitichinaccio (under CC BY-SA 3.0)
Stanley Bill is the founder and editor-at-large of Notes from Poland. He is also Senior Lecturer in Polish Studies and Director of the Polish Studies Programme at the University of Cambridge. He has spent more than ten years living in Poland, mostly based in Kraków and Bielsko-Biała.
He is the Chair of the Board of the Notes from Poland Foundation.