Posted on September 3, 2008

Poles Depart

The Economist, August 28, 2008

SUPERMARKET aisles offer amateur ethnographers rich opportunities for fieldwork. American pockets in London can be identified by the Thanksgiving displays in November; sour cherry juice suggests that Turks are close at hand. Now great rows of tinned borscht announce a newer arrival. Recent immigration from eastern Europe has been on a truly grand scale: Tesco, Britain’s biggest retailer, now runs a groceries website in Polish.

Just over a million people have so far come to Britain from the eight central and east European countries that joined the European Union in 2004. John Salt, a geographer at University College London, reckons it is the biggest influx in British history, at least in gross terms (immigration by French Huguenots in the 17th century may have been bigger relative to the population at the time). Poles, who have made up about two-thirds of the newcomers, are now the largest group of foreign nationals in Britain, up from 13th place five years ago.

They might not be for much longer. The insatiable job market that sucked them in is beginning to tire. Work in hospitality and construction is becoming scarcer in Britain, while Poland’s economy is growing by over 5% a year. And earnings do not translate as well as they did: the pound, which bought seven zlotys at the beginning of 2004, now fetches four.

Last quarter saw the lowest number of east Europeans registering for work since 2004, even though summer months tend to be the busiest. And as arrivals fall, departures seem to be increasing. There is no reliable official count of the numbers leaving Britain, but in April a think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR), carried out its own “poll of Poles” and found that about half of the newcomers had already gone home. It predicts that departures will start to outweigh arrivals within a year.

This is bad news for borscht lovers, as well as for the Catholic church, which reckons its numbers have been swelled by some 10% in the past two years, in large part by Poles. But east European migration will leave lasting marks, however brief an episode it turns out to be.

Most noticeably, it has gone some way to decoupling the issue of immigration from that of race. Since the 1950s large-scale immigration to Britain has mainly been from Africa, the Caribbean and South Asia, meaning that arguments about immigration have been racially charged (indeed, plenty of politicians have deliberately conflated the issues). Now, with the arrival of a million white, mainly poor, foreigners, immigration is being analysed in more purely economic terms.

There is a sensible argument to be had about immigration and population, and whether this wave of low-paid workers has put pressure on wages. David Cameron, the Tory leader, has shaken off his brief reluctance to discuss the subject and now casts it in terms of demography. Labour has toughened up too: last year Gordon Brown, the prime minister, called for more “British jobs for British workers,” a rallying cry that once only the far right used. Some critics still touch on the old ugly themes: this month the Daily Mail agreed to remove some negative articles from its website following a complaint from the Federation of Poles in Great Britain. But even when the east Europeans have departed, debating the merits of immigration will no longer be off-limits in polite society.

The brevity of the east Europeans’ spell in Britain—if such it proves to be—is the second distinctive thing about it. Past waves of immigrants have nearly always stayed put, or at least aimed to. Unencumbered by visas because their countries belong to the EU, east Europeans do not have to stick around once they are in. Cheap airlines enable some even to split their time between Britain and their home country. This flexibility should give Britain a softer landing if the economy slows further, since migrants can head home rather than swell the unemployment figures. But it has also changed the way that Britons think about immigrants. Once seen as a charge on the state (especially when asylum applications were high, at the start of the decade) they are now more likely to be considered a threat to jobs. Laura Chappell of IPPR has spotted that people tend to describe east Europeans as “migrants”, whereas non-European settlers are called “immigrants”.

Finally, east Europeans have fanned out across the country far more than earlier arrivals, manning Lake District retirement homes, East Anglian farms, Scottish fish-processing plants and Channel Island guest houses. In all, 21% live in London, compared with 41% of other foreign nationals resident in Britain. Their arrival in areas that had little prior experience of migration—Boston, Northampton, Peterborough and others—has exposed problems with how money is disbursed by the central government, and is prompting reform. Funding for public services such as health, police and fire services relies on population estimates, which undercount short-term visitors and those who live at business addresses, such as hotel staff. The government is setting up a (mainly symbolic) pot of about £15m ($28m) a year, funded by a levy on visas, to bail out councils that fall short, and it has promised to improve its counting. More tweaks may follow.

As the Poles pack their bags, those who came to rely on them to paint their walls or fix their computers are feeling the loss. Reinforcements could be on the way: Romanians and Bulgarians will be able to work freely in Britain from 2013 and could come earlier if the economy picks up. But Ms Chappell points out that those countries have strong links with Italy and Spain, and other western European countries have more open labour markets than they did in 2004. Britain may not look as attractive a destination a second time around.