“Conscience is a mother in law whose visit never ends.” So thought American writer H.L. Mencken. And while ministerial visits do end, one might on this occasion wonder about the conscience of the ministers concerned given the attitude of government of which they are part to concerns of xenophobia.
On Monday, Poland’s Interior Minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, and Foreign Minister, Witold Waszczykowski, travelled to London for discussions with British authorities following a series of attacks on Poles in Great Britain. Two Poles were injured on Sunday soon after a march had been held in Harlow to commemorate a Pole killed there by a gang of thugs the previous week. Whether there was anti-Polish element to that attack remains unclear since local shopkeepers reported making a number of complaints about gangs of thugs gathering the area over a number of months and the police have cautioned against jumping to conclusions.
Be that as it may, no tragedy (and tragedy it undoubtedly is) is to be wasted if political capital can be made of it, and thus the visit. “We want to find out if xenophobia is the reason for these attacks and whether there is a political campaign aimed against Poles,” said Witold Waszczykowski, the Polish foreign minister, in a radio interview before leaving Warsaw. “At the moment there are perhaps a million Poles living in the UK so this could be an attempt to discourage the arrival of more, but we can’t confirm this hypothesis.”
Although the Waszczykowski did concede that it was possible this had been a random act of violence, he also stressed that the British government had to protect Poles living in the UK. Blaszczak, the interior minister, plans to ascertain whether policing has been increased in areas where many Poles live, and whether people threatening Poles are being identified. On Saturday, during a visit to Warsaw, British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson assured the Polish government that “xenophobia has no place in our society”.
Needless to say, the deputy leader of the opposition Platforma Obywatelska has dismissed the visit as simply a PR gesture that risks damaging relations with the UK. He makes the perfectly good point that were such an incident to occur in Poland, the Polish interior ministry certainly would not welcome a “foreign colleague checking up on him.”
Indeed. The continuing furore over the constitutional tribunal, and the way concerns of the EU Commission and the Venice Commission are dismissed by the government of which Błaszczak, and Waszczykowski are part, demonstrates an approach to even legitimate foreign interest which sits ill with the sudden need to tell another government how to do its job.
And, of course, when it comes to xenophobia, the Polish government appears to be on even less sure ground. Requests to admit refugees are routinely dismissed on security grounds and within the country the nationalistic agenda seems to be acquiring a rather unwelcome 1930s hue, complete with latter day marching brown-shirts, the formation of militias, attempts to re-write history, the abolition of Poland’s anti-racism body and the “wrong sort” of Pole being made to feel as unwelcome as the wrong sort of refugee, as the middle ground (and effective opposition) in Polish politics melts away like snow in spring.
Meanwhile, deputy prime minister Marek Morawiecki has been in London suggesting that Poland was a possible destination for financial businesses concerned about the lack of EU pass-porting rights if the UK loses access to the single market. He also expects tens of thousands of Poles to return to Poland in the next decade as the Polish economy grows. “There are many reasons to return. There are more opportunities to find a decent job, unemployment is at a historically low level, and new businesses are being developed by national companies,” he said. “There is a relative convergence of Polish salaries with the rest of Europe and already we have GDP per capita at 70% vis-à-vis the EU average, so there will be less incentive to look for a job somewhere else.”
He also suggested that Poland could act to as some sort of intermediary between the UK and EU in the exit negotiations, which seems to overlook Poland’s currently strained relations for reasons mentioned above. Perhaps his time would be better spent trying to return Poland to the path it was on until a year ago and dealing with the expected downgrade by Moody’s of Poland’s credit rating. Still it is an offer kindly meant, no doubt.
The last word I leave to St. Luke: And why seest thou the mote in thy brother’s eye: but the beam that is in thy own eye thou considerest not?