“There is no passion to be found playing small – in settling for a life that is less that the one you are capable of living.” So thought Nelson Mandela, and so thought the millions of Poles who, since Poland joined the European Union, have settled not for second best but for abroad. This mass exodus has, inevitably, been used a stick to beat Poland for her apparently less than generous response to the current Syrian refugee crisis (please see Refugee and Charity) contrasting the Poles’ propensity to emigrate for better prospects with her apparent reluctance to welcome others who might wish to do the same, including yesterday vetoing – with other CEE states – an EU Commission plan to resettle 120,000 refugees throughout the EU on a quota basis.
Of course, one man’s lack of generosity is another man’s caution and common sense but, to keep up with the zeitgeist, the facts must not be allowed to confuse the argument. Suffice it to say that with Germany abruptly imposing border controls, having only a week ago criticized Hungary for seeking to apply EU asylum rules and impose order on chaos, and other countries following suit, not only is the future of Schengen itself in doubt, but the cautious approach has been vindicated.
Be that as it may, President Duda, on a visit to the UK yesterday said that he is not trying to encourage Poles to return to Poland because, as he refreshingly put it, the economic situation in Poland is “still unfavourable”. Speaking to the Media Polonia agency Duda said: “I do not have the courage to say: come back to your country. Are there more jobs in your localities, and is it easier to do business, is the burden smaller? I cannot see such changes. Polish development is mainly in the statistics.” After meeting some 200 representatives of Polish organisations in the UK, Duda spoke to reporters from local Polish media, telling them, “We see in Poland progressive social stratification disappearing and producing after 1989 a middle class, but people have also become impoverished. This is a process that must be stopped and even reversed.”
All well and good, but is anybody actually going to do anything about it? With a general election next month, Civic Platform (PO) appears to be waking up from the torpor which allowed Duda, formerly of Law and Justice (PiS), to beat the incumbent president, formerly of PO, in the first place. At a party convention at the weekend, prime minister Ewa Kopacz, promised to introduce a flat rate personal income tax rate (PIT) of 10 per cent to replace the current rate of 18 per cent for employees who earn between PLN 3,091 and 85,528, and 32 per cent for those who earn more than PLN 85,528. In addition, she promised to reduce social security contributions, to introduce a minimum hourly wage of PLN 12 (just below EUR 3), and revealed a plan for a single employment contract designed eliminate the “junk” temporary, fixed term contracts with no job security.
Opposition party PiS, currently leading PO in opinion polls, held its convention on Saturday, with Beata Szydło, PiS’s candidate for prime minister, offering a PLN 12 minimum wage as well. She promised 1.2 million new jobs for those up to 35 years of age in a scheme that would see the local government and business working together. For good measure, both parties pledged to make medicine free for those over the age of 75.
Welcome as these changes are, they are unlikely to persuade many Poles to return to Poland, with or without presidential exhortations, once they settle abroad. Established in good jobs, in a new home, and with the children in school, the drive, determination, and wish for better prospects that caused them to emigrate in the first place, is not easily overcome, whatever may be the romantic attachment to home, if home it remain.
Which, of course, brings us back to the beginning. Should not Poland be readier to recognise in others, and respond with equal generosity, to the same impulses which Poles have felt and have been allowed to follow? The simple answer is yes. The more complicated answer is yes, we are ready to be accommodating and generous, but we look around Europe and are worried about letting something darker into our home, so we must be cautious. Or, as Tacitus put it, “candor and generosity, unless tempered by due moderation, leads to ruin”.