Go West: Poles and Balts Head For British Isles

Go West: Poles and Balts Head for British Isles
From the desk of Paul Belien on Mon, 2006-06-12 21:18

According to the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza over 2 million Poles may have emigrated to find work in Western Europe since Poland joined the EU on May 1st, 2004. In July 2004 the Polish population was estimated to be 38.6 million. British demographers, such as Prof. David Coleman of Oxford University, say that the Poles are arriving in Britain in historic record numbers. From one country in a very short space of time, it must be the largest influx we have ever seen, Coleman says. Professor John Salt of University College London calls the phenomenon unprecedented.

Demographers estimate that more than 350,000 Poles entered Britain in the past two years. Official British figures registered 204,895 Poles signing up to work in Britain by the end of last year. Experts agree the real figure is far higher since the immigrants are not required to register. Other East European nationalities are also arriving in large numbers, such as Slovaks (36,355 in the official figures) and Lithuanians (44,715).

The French paper Le Monde, recently cited figures which indicate that since the EU expanded to include ten new member states in 2004, 300,000 East Europeans have emigrated to the United Kingdom and 200,000 to Ireland. The scale has dwarfed pre-2004 forecasts when the British authorities predicted a net influx of 13,000 from the entire region. The figure is at least 30 times higher which shows what government predictions are worth.

While most West European EU countries have blocked citizens of the new member states from migrating in search of work until 2009, Britain and Ireland were among the few EU members that took the EU rhetoric about freedom of movement seriously and opened their doors. This led to a realignment in Polish emigration. Poles had already been leaving their country before 2004, but mostly for Germany.

According to official data 271,000 Poles emigrated in the 1980s, though experts think the number was much higher and could amount to 1.3 million. During the last 10 years between 20,000 to 30,000 Poles are officially said to have left. German statistics indicate, however, that in the same period 700,000 to 800,000 Poles immigrated into Germany alone.

The British and the Irish welcome the East Europeans. Kevin Quinn of the Irish national employment agency FAS says that the Irish economy needs 50,000 to 70,000 new immigrants per year in the next five years.

The mass migration of people, however, is having a negative effect on the countries that supply the cheap labour. Latvia, for example, had a population of 2.66 million when it gained independence in 1991 but the official figure now is below 2.3 million. The country is facing the sharpest demographic decline in the whole of the EU. According to official Irish figures 18,000 Latvians emigrated to the Bower in the last eighteen months. This has angered the Latvian authorities.

Riga speaks of a massive exodus. It is estimated that between 40,000 and 70,000 people have left Latvia, where the average monthly pay is only about 300 euros, the lowest figure in the EU. At the same time, however, the country has the highest growth rate in the EU (10% in 2005) and, despite an unemployment rate of 7.8%, its entrepreneurs are in need of workers.

Elina Egle, director-general of the Employers Confederation of Latvia (LDDK), recently criticised the Latvian government. The migration flow could have been foreseen, but the authorities did not anticipate it, she said. They should have taken measures to keep the people here.

Latvian companies are now looking for employees outside the EU, in the Ukraine and Belarus. Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the Latvian president, has appointed a commission to study how the country can persuade the Latvian emigrants to return home. There have also been bilateral talks between Riga and Dublin. We understand their concern, Kevin Quinn says, because Ireland had the same problems ten years ago. […] We will not recruit [Latvians] in professions that Latvia lacks.

Elina Egle, however, is embittered. The Baltic countries allow any foreign company to come here and benefit from our cheap workers and our low taxes. But the reverse is not true. Our companies encounter a lot of difficulties when they want to enter foreign markets, she says, referring to the recent refusal of the socialist-dominated West European countries to implement the Bolkestein directive for the free movement of services in the EU.