European Affairs

This is nothing new for us. After “Poland” disappeared from the map in the late 18th century (partitioned among its neighbors), Poles have been one of the world’s leading emigrant and “diaspora” nations – along with the Irish, Jews or Chinese. Poles left their homeland driven by poverty, foreign rule and political oppression. Often, this has worked to the benefit of the motherland. In the 1980s, Poles established in the West contributed greatly to the success of the Solidarity movement by providing financial and political support. For example, Jan Nowak- Jezioranski, a hero of the World War II government in exile of Poland, was instrumental – as a security adviser to President Ronald Reagan – in shaping U.S. policy towards the Communist regime in Warsaw and the whole Soviet bloc.

The current wave is different. For the first time in over 200 years, Poland is free, safe and prospering. People emigrate now because of high expectations. Young Poles want Western standards of living – now. In Poland, life is still catching up with the West after the disastrous half-century under Communist rule. It simply cannot provide enough opportunities for everyone. Emigration is a positive alternative, especially if it proves temporary.

Contemporary conditions have changed the meaning of emigration in many respects. Nowadays Poles living and working in other EU countries are not as disconnected from the reality back home as their predecessors. E-mail keeps them in touch with their families and friends; the Internet delivers details about every imaginable aspect of life in Poland.

Cheap airfares within the EU have blurred the meaning of “emigration.” Someone told me the other day about a man from northwest Poland who works in London during the week and spends his weekends at home. Is he an emigrant or a commuter?

Contrary to what is often assumed, it is generally not the very brightest who leave. But many skilled people do. After a decade of vibrant growth, the private education sector produces more graduates than the job market can absorb. If many of these people did not look for a job abroad, they would be unemployed, burdening the over-loaded welfare system.

Now, instead of being a burden, they are a positive force. Each year Poles abroad repatriate billions of euro. According to the National Bank of Poland the amount of private transfers to Poland amounted to €5.5 billion last year – up more than 40 percent above the annual average in the five years preceding Poland’s entry into the European Union. And, of course, this figure for transfers does not include sums (certainly in the hundreds of millions of euro) coming back to Poland in people’s pockets without going through the banking system. This euro inflow helps Poland maintain its current-account balance.

More importantly, it is a sign of hope. People are not inclined to send money home unless they are planning to return at some point. And when they do, they bring back experience. Some have only washed dishes 12 hours a day in a London pub. But the experience of functioning in a different society broadens their horizons, giving them strength to try something new on their own after they return.

I know a 30-year-old Harvard graduate who abandoned a promising career at Georgetown University to start a law firm in Poland. I know a Polish couple who after ten years in the United States decided this year to return to Warsaw.

The question of Polish emigration is a question about the future of Poland. If ten years from now the country looks promising, emigrants will come home with all their positive baggage of capital and skills – just like they did afer the fall of Communism.

For the moment, the flow is far from reversing. There can be no certainty it ever will. But it is too early to tell.
This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 7, Issue number 3-4 in the Fall/Winter of 2006.