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Understanding the Brexit Vote: The Impact of Polish Immigrants on Euroscepticism

Rohit Sudarshan wrote “Understanding the Brexit Vote: The Impact of Polish Immigrants on Euroscepticism” as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action Diplomacy and Diversity Fellowship.



In the weeks prior to the eagerly anticipated Brexit vote, the Polish capital of Warsaw seemed far removed from the drama that was engulfing Great Britain.  Only a late projected image of the Union Jack flag on the Palace of Culture and Science, cast just hours before the vote during my final night in Warsaw, served as a faint reminder that Great Britain’s decision to leave the European Union (EU) would impact Poland. While the ruling party in Poland, the Law and Justice (PiS) Party, continues to promote Euroscepticism, and nationalism, there are nearly one million Poles in the United Kingdom (UK) that benefit greatly from the EU and its subsequent easing of immigration to the UK and other European nations. Euroscepticism, which now is a specific term to many Western European countries, refers to the doubt that many countries feel in the power and efficacy of the EU. For Great Britain, it was a “portmanteau for every British reservation expressed about postwar European cooperation and integration.” (1)  

Since Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004, Polish-born residents now account for well over 800,000 people, an addition of close to 750,000 people. As a result, Poland has overtaken India as the most common non-UK country of birth among UK residents (2). Given this increase, there was some intrigue in both the UK and Poland about the fate of these workers in the event of a Brexit. However, in speaking with Polish experts, it was clear that the intrigue had not turned to fear. Most felt a Brexit vote would not affect the status of Poles in England. To paraphrase the views of many public policy experts, Polish workers were largely taking jobs that locals would never do. More importantly, by virtue of being European, Poles were able to integrate in the UK and would not be subject to prejudice. This exchange was similar to a 1980s assessment of Poles entering the UK after the Second World War, courtesy of the 1947 Polish Resettlement Act: “People wanted to know what we thought…and they began to accept us. When they discovered that we are a hard-working lot, they began to like us, I think.” (3) The uncertainty in the quote is deeply relevant as those that insisted the Poles were secure in the Great Britain, both from unemployment, deportation, and prejudice, were in for a rude shock in the days surrounding the Brexit vote. 

Waves of Polish Immigration:

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), “between 1990 and 2012 almost 20 million people moved from central, eastern, and south-eastern Europe to richer countries in [W]estern Europe.” (4) Later, in 2004 when eight Eastern European countries joined the EU, migration to Western Europe increased. At the time of accession, these 8 countries, which included Poland as well as other Baltic States and Eastern European nations, were notably poor countries by EU standards. Because of this development, most European countries were fearful of a large wave of immigrants that sought higher wages abroad. While the new accession of EU member countries and the subsequent rise of immigration was consistent with continued European economic integration, “it was feared that unlimited labor migration from the A-8 would cause serious problems for the labor markets of the EU-15.” (5) However, while most Western European countries staggered immigration with a “2+3+2 model” in which restrictions were reassessed every 2 or 3 years, the UK trusted that its wages would not be disrupted by a large influx of Polish workers. It enacted no major labor or immigration restrictions for A-8 countries. As a result, approximately 70 percent of migrants from the A-8 have gone to either Ireland or the UK, with Poland taking on the largest share of this 70 percent. 

The presence of Poles in the UK and the subsequent prejudice they have faced underscores an important evolution in the nature of discrimination where class and education have become focal points for hate and marginalization. After all, the history of Polish migration began well before Poland’s accession to the EU. The actual proportional increases of Poles after EU accession in 2004, a gain of 750,000 over the course of a decade, is less extreme than the increase that occurred due to the 1947 Polish Resettlement Act when nearly 200,000 Poles were resettled in a single year. Furthermore, 1947 also saw a major population increase with baby boomer births, leading the population to increase by 551,000 to 49,538,700, a more extreme demographic stressor on the nation (6).  

Although race and skin color continue to be tied to class and economic vitality throughout the UK, the type of hostility that Poles face elevates the fear that the British have towards the European continent and the perceived threat of integration with the continent. A bizarre, tragically comic exchange that illustrates the confusing battle of prejudice between class and race featured a Leave voter that explained his decision to a British reporter of South Asian descent. After explaining that he wanted immigrants out of the UK and whether his focus was on his Eastern Europeans, he said that he didn’t mean “Pakis” who were “not foreigners,” merely people with “the same hearts, just different colored skin.” (7) The exchange was hardly an endorsement of racial sensitivity in Great Britain, but perhaps showed a level of slightly more comfort towards the South Asian immigrants of Great Britain than those from Poland, whose presence in the UK is perceived as more recent. 

For almost the entirety of 2016, there has been ample discussion, both qualitative and quantitative, concerning the rise of Euroscepticism among countries in Western Europe.  Most pieces have tied the negative views of the EU to two issues: one, the prolonged financial slump that followed the 2008 financial crisis, and the other, the poor handling of the Syrian refugee crisis (8). However, an independent focus on either of these issues ignores that a third issue compounds both, which is that Euroskepticism is inherent in the very expression itself. The migration of immigrants from low wage countries within the European continent, specifically Eastern Europe, was seen to exacerbate unemployment and deflation in the UK as well exhaust the tolerance British residents, both for immigrants from other European countries as well as from countries in Africa and Asia. 

Poles in the UK have a history that stretches beyond Poland’s accession to the EU in 2004, something that can further the arguments of those who either discuss the detailed history of Polish integration as well as the severe systemic racism this community has suffered. In 1941, the 1.5 million Poles that were deported to the Soviet Union joined the Second Polish Corps and were later incorporated into the British army. After the war, in 1947, they were brought to Britain along with some Poles that were freed from concentration camps. Most felt their stay would be temporary, but naturalization applications increased in the 1960s because of the political and economic stagnation that persisted in Poland under communism. One Polish worker surveyed during the 1980s explained that the discrimination he experienced since his arrival in the 1940s began to abate after the arrival of immigrants from former English colonies, namely the Caribbean and South Asia (9).  However, this tendency has changed somewhat in the current xenophobic climate of the UK. Nigel Farage, the leader of the UK Independence Party (UKIP) party of England, confessed that there were factors above the typical racial preference regarding his immigration beliefs. He explains that he has a preference for other English-speaking immigrants such as those from India and Australia who are “naturally more likely to understand common law, and have a connection with this country than some people that come perhaps from countries that haven’t fully recovered from being behind the iron curtain.” The insinuation of his “iron curtain” remarks were further validated by his belief that present immigration policy “discriminates in favor of people from Poland, or Romania, or Bulgaria.” (10) This speaks to a type of class discrimination that looks unfavorably on immigrants of low skills and harkens to the negative stereotyping of all post communist countries as being incompatible with an English-speaking, capitalist world.

Even as the UK and Poland have strengthened relations, the treatment of Poles in the UK has remained a challenge. The policy, which UKIP leaders and followers have opposed, are a series of special considerations for immigrants from “A8 countries” where restrictions to their movement were limited, contrary to the practice of most other Western European countries.  

British Euroscepticism vs. Euroscepticism

The irony of the animosity that Poles face in Great Britain is that the nationalism and xenophobia that UKIP has exploited politically is similar to that of the PiS party in Poland, which remains extremely popular notwithstanding a recent controversy over restricting abortion in cases of rape and incest (11). Divisions between rural residents and urbanites have popularized the PiS, which “like Britain’s [UKIP], appeals to those who have been ‘left behind.’” (12) Criticism of the politics and prejudice within Eastern Europe is frequent fodder among Western European leaders. While the more centrist and progressive parties ask these Eastern European nations to accept more refugees, parties on the far right frequently describe the close-mindedness of Eastern European countries as a justification to restrict their movement westward (13). A writer recently explained asked “why other European countries (have) forgotten that many of their citizens were once refugees,”  an attitude that is considered “historical amnesia.” (14)

This dissonance between the discrimination of Poles in Western Europe and the xenophobia that is validated by Polish voters is best articulated by a second generation Polish American, who summarized the EU’s eastern states as “intolerant, narrow-minded, and xenophobic.” He continues that “for centuries their forbears emigrated en masse to escape from material misery and political persecution.” (15) It seems, after a comparison between Eastern and Western Europe, that universal lessons and teachings need to apply to both. Indeed, “what little can be gleaned from the muddled research on xenophobia suggests that it’s worth distinguishing between government policies that are hostile to refugees and the sentiments of the governed population.” (16)  

Criticisms of the Polish government’s response can be callous and unsophisticated; Andras Schweitzer, a Hungarian journalist that focuses on stereotypes of Eastern Europeans, explains how others characterize them as “heartless and mindless,” focusing “on their own poverty and insecurity, [who] feel themselves to be the ones in need of help.” (17)  This fear should be treated with seriousness as “in Eastern Europe, where borders were frequently redrawn, the nation is still widely seen as an ethnic/cultural entity rather than a political one, and cultural and ethnic homogeneity is regarded as an asset that helps to prevent the disintegration of the state.” (18)  Unfortunately, the marginalization that Poles and other Eastern Europeans experience in Western Europe furthers their own sense of being treated as second class citizens, hardening their determination “to keep their sovereignty vis-à-vis the forced quota system.” (19)  As the writer concludes, this is not “historical amnesia,” but rather “a succession of national traumas of historic proportions.” (20)  

Post Referendum Aggression:

In the hours and days following the Brexit vote, there were incidents of racist graffiti on the stores and homes in the Polish quarters of several English cities, including in London and Cambridgeshire (21).  Hateful comments on social media were accompanied by direct abuse from patrons at restaurants and patients at hospitals (22). The “undercurrent of negative attitudes against Poles” (23) that have been expressed in newspapers since Poland joined the EU have fueled a response from Polish newspapers in the UK. For example, the Polish Express Newspaper, sponsored a migrant workers strike in response to increased policy discussions against illegal immigration. However, many Poles were hesitant to join the protest, believing it to be a strain on relations between the Anglo-Polish diaspora and the British community (24). Furthermore, many Poles do not necessarily feel threatened by xenophobia that is not specifically targeting Poles. 

Less than three months after the vote, Arek Jozwik, a Polish man, was violently killed in Harlow by a group of six men (25). The backlash has had many parallels to racial violence in the United States, with a growing fear among the Polish community in England that Polish officers are insensitive to the fears within their community. A call for the inclusion of more policeman of Polish origin has been one of the few ways to counteract the fears of the community. A silent vigil in Mr. Jozwik’s honor led to two additional assaults against British Poles, further illustrating the huge challenges facing the Polish community in the UK (26). 

These violent incidents were a focal point beyond the UK and Poland as EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker spoke out against the attacks, explaining how the events show that “the [EU] doesn’t have enough union; there are splits out there and fragmentation exists, leaving scope for galloping populism.” (27)  

In the days following the UK’s decision to leave the EU, there was a 57 percent increase across in the nation in hate crimes, as reported by the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC). However, the increase in some of the most Eurosceptic parts of the country was even more acute. Derbyshire, for example, saw a 121 percent rise in the first week following the EU referendum while Nottinghamshire experienced a 140 percent increase. Both counties were among the several counties of central UK with a majority vote to leave (28).  

The increased incidence of hate crimes in the UK showcased two conclusions. One was that there was a link between Euroscepticism and racial or bigoted animus. The counties that voted to leave saw a larger rise in hate crimes, particularly against racial and religious minorities. The second conclusion was that hate crimes against all marginalized groups, some of whom were not even directly related to Brexit complaints, spiked. This can be seen in the rise of homophobic attacks in the UK, which rose by 147%, as measured three months following the Brexit vote (29). Despite all assurances that the vote is a reaction to the yoke of continental Europe, the desire of the leave voters is to reject more than just the immigrants from poorer EU countries, particularly some of the liberal values such as multiculturalism and tolerance for sexual identity that were thought to be a widely accepted norm of Western Europe. Furthermore, the fact that this backlash occurs after, rather than before, a clear majority exercised their will shows how long lasting these racial tensions were. The Brexit vote should have been a peaceful way to exercise concern for the Great Britain’s relationship with the EU. As it turned out, it was a mandate for hateful behavior. 


Euroscepticism has grown and flourished from an abstract rallying cry to more explicit policy since the founding of the party in 1993 and its large surge in popularity during the 2004 election, the same year many new Eastern European countries would have access to the EU common market. The aftermath of Brexit and the rise of hate crimes against a variety of marginalized groups, including LGBTI, people of color, and immigrants from Eastern Europe, show how xenophobia and the fear of the “other” has far reaching consequences that threaten the future of Great Britain. While the response to Brexit was no doubt motivated by a type of fear and subsequent bigotry, it is important to remember that the origin of Brexit was deeply related to the migration of Eastern European workers. Their specific qualities, which included a very different language and a willingness and interest in working in low wage jobs threatened the perceptions of stability for the British worker. A post referendum analysis that emphasizes the role of the 2004 EU accession and the subsequent rise in immigration enables better preparedness for the further ethnic, religious, racial, and cultural tensions that will afflict the western world. A welcoming attitude and education on migration is a prerequisite. As can be seen in the case of Brexit, the impetus for xenophobic violence lies within the European continent. 

•     •     • 

About the Author 

Rohit Sudarshan is a researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), originally from Cincinnati, Ohio. He received his MA in Law and Diplomacy from The Fletcher School at Tufts University where he wrote a thesis on the impact of Filipino remittances on local development in the Philippines. Sudarshan previously worked at the National Democratic Institute on the Asia team. He received a BA in Political Science from Kenyon College. 



The author and editor thank Pelin Ekmen for her dedicated efforts in reviewing earlier versions of this article.


1. Menno Spiering, British Euroscpeticism. (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.) 128

2. “Poland overtakes India as country of origin, UK migration statistics show,” BBC News Aug. 25, 2016, accessed September 20, 2016 http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-politics-37183733.

3. Andrew Nocon. “A Reluctant Welcome? Poles in Britain in the 1940s.” (London: Oral History, 1996.) 79.

4. Migration: Needed but not wanted, The Economist, October 1, 2016, accessed October 10, 2016 http://www.economist.com/news/special-report/21707835-economic-migrants-are-seen-threat-jobs-and-welfare-state-reality-more

5. Saara Koikkalainen, “Free Movement in Europe: Past and Present,” Migration Policy Institute, April 21, 2011 accessed September 10, 2016, http://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/free-movement-europe-past-and-present

6. Sam Jones, “Birth rate pushes UK population to greatest increase in almost 50 years,” The Guardian, August 27, 2009 accessed September 10, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/aug/27/population-growth-uk-birth-rate-immigration

7. Adrienne Mahsa Varkiani, “The Rise in Hate Crimes in the U.K. After Brexit Should Scare You,” ThinkProgress, June 28, 2016 accessed September 5, 2016, https://thinkprogress.org/the-rise-in-hate-crimes-in-the-u-k-after-brexit-should-scare-you-7241f78376c0#.112i4ktyg

8. Oliver Wright, “Euroscepticism on the rise across Europe as analysis finds increasing opposition to the EU in France, Germany and Spain,” The Independent, June 7, 2016, accessed September 10, 2016 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/euroscepticism-on-the-rise-across-europe-as-analysis-finds-increasing-opposition-to-the-eu-in-france-a7069766.html

9. Andrew Nocon. “A Reluctant Welcome? Poles in Britain in the 1940s.” (London: Oral History, 1996.) .

10. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/22/nigel-farage-immigrants-india-australia-better-than-eastern-europeans

11. “Ladies in Black,” The Economist, October 15, 2016, accessed October 18, 2016 http://www.economist.com/news/europe/21708689-government-loses-battle-remains-popular-and-illiberal-ladies-black

12. Ibid

13. Heather Horn, “Is Eastern Europe Any More Xenophobic Than Western Europe,” The Atlantic, October 16, 2015 accessed September 10, 2016 http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/xenophobia-eastern-europe-refugees/410800/

14. John Shattuck, “Lift Central Europe’s historical amnesia,” Boston Globe, September 9, 2015, Accessed October 20, 2016 https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2015/09/09/amid-refugee-crisis-lift-central-europe-historical-amnesia/x0hfw7jSAqUCxPP4Zo3l2N/story.html

15. Heather Horn, “Is Eastern Europe Any More Xenophobic Than Western Europe,” The Atlantic, October 16, 2015 accessed September 10, 2016 http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2015/10/xenophobia-eastern-europe-refugees/410800/

16. Ibid

17. Andras Schweitzer. “Eastern Europe’s hard attitude to refugees is born out of trauma,” The Guardian, October 22, 2015 https://www.theguardian.com/world/commentisfree/2015/oct/22/refugee-eastern-europe-trauma-governments-bigotry

18. Ibid

19. Ibid

20. Ibid

21. Roisin O’Connor, “Brexit: Polish Embassy responds after spark in reports of hate crime and racial abuse,” The Independent, June 27, 2016, accessed September 20, 2016 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/brexit-eu-referendum-racism-racial-abuse-hate-crime-polish-latest-leave-immigration-a7105746.html)

22. “Polish media in UK shocked by post-Brexit hate crimes,” BBC News, June 26, 2016 Accessed September 10, 2016 http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36656348

23. Rohit Sudarshan. Interview with Anna Stefaniak. Center for Research on Prejudice, Faculty of Psychology, University of Warsaw. Personal Interview. Warsaw, September 4, 2016.

24. Jonathan Owen, “Thousands of Polish workers to take part in the first ever migrant workers strike in Britain,” The Independent, August 7, 2015, accessed September 5, 2016 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/thousands-of-polish-workers-to-take-part-in-the-first-ever-migrant-workers-strike-in-britain-10445970.html

25. Adam Lusher and Catherine Wylie, “Arek Jozwik killing: Arrival of Polish police on streets of Harlow greeted with suspicion,” The Independent, September 15, 2016, accessed Septmber 20, 2016, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/arek-j-wik-killing-harlow-polish-police-officers-in-british-town-hate-crime-post-brexit-racism-post-a7309346.html

26. Ibid

27. Jennifer Rankin, “European Commission President Decries Attacks on Poles Since Brexit Vote,” The Guardian, September 14, 2016, accessed September 20, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/sep/14/juncker-european-unity-brexit-vote-eu

28. Jon Stone, “Brexit: Surge in anti-immigrant hate crime in areas that voted to leave EU,” The Independent, July 31, 2016 accessed Septembr 10, 2016 http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/brexit-hate-crime-racism-immigration-eu-referendum-result-what-it-means-eurospectic-areas-a7165056.html

29. Mark Townsend, “Homophobic attacks in UK rose 147% in three months after Brexit vote,” The Guardian, October 8, 2016, accessed October 15, 2016 https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/oct/08/homophobic-attacks-double-after-brexit-vote

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