Saturday, 3 January 2009

Scotland's Poles

"Oh - I thought you were Polish," said the man behind the shop counter after I spoke.

"Do I look Polish?" I asked.


"Well, my grandfather was from Poland."

"Ah, that's why!"

Since Poland (and nine other countries) joined the EU in 2004, Britain has had an unprecedented influx of Central Europeans. The majority are Poles, and many who are not are simply assumed to be Polish.

Most of the immigration has been to the UK and Ireland, with London, Edinburgh, and the Highlands being noteable hotspots. The reason for this is that of the old EU countries, only the UK and Ireland allowed free movement to the citizens of the new EU countries. The likes of Germany and France were worried they would be swamped by Slavic hordes, and placed initial limits on internal EU movement. Thus the most go-getting of the new EU citizens have been pouring into Britain and Ireland since 2004.

Foreigners often have certain stereotypes to live up to, and Poles have had the good fortune of being assumed to be honest, hard working, and skilled tradesmen. While this might not be true in every case, the stereotype has been strong enough for at least one enterprising Scotsman to advertise his services recently as 'Polish Plumber'.

But most Poles are not planning to stay. Poland is co-hosting Euro 2012 with Ukraine, and there is a lot more work there than there was in 2004. In a way this is comforting, a validation of the EU as an improver of the European standard of living. These people are not refugees: they have chosen to come to the UK to work, but many will go home as their own countries become more prosperous.

Perhaps then, as in the 16th and 17th centuries, the flow of people will run the other way; and Scots will be travelling to Poland and the Baltic for work?

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