Our home Europe: Euroelections and the political participation of Polish migrants

After 10 years in the European Union, Poles no longer go abroad only to work and send money home, as they did in the past. Now they leave their homeland to start new lives studying, working and raising their children in several other member states. They also have political power, and they seem to realize that using it will only benefit them, changing their image in society and forcing politicians to take their needs into account. Shall we expect Polish migrants’ political awakening then? The upcoming European Parliament elections will give us a hint.

Foto:CreativeCommons/Paul


There is a difference between Polish migrants from the 90’s or earlier and migrants living abroad now. The turning point was Poland’s accession to the European Union. Although the reasons for emigrating are still often connected with better economic conditions, now it is much easier to find legal work, stay longer, and start a family. This changes the attitude of new migrants; they become rooted in their new country and more active as citizens. They do have the right to vote in EP elections (and sometimes local elections, too), and if they do, they could become quite an influential group and reap the benefits of it themselves.

Almost 2 million Poles already live in the European Union outside of Poland, according to a recent report by the CEED Institute based on Eurostat data. They make up the second-largest group of migrants from CEE countries to the EU15. Poles also make up the second-largest minority group in the United Kingdom and the largest in the Republic of Ireland. All of this gives Polish migrants considerable political power.

Their position is also very privileged in the upcoming European Parliament elections. As citizens of the European Union, they can vote for candidates for the MEP positions from their country of residence. For example, they can vote for British candidates to the European Parliament if they live in the UK or Italian candidates if they live in Italy. In addition, as citizens of Poland, they are still entitled to vote for Polish candidates (from Warsaw’s district) to the European Parliament. There are 176 election districts in Polish consulates all over the world; 69 of them are located in the European Union (most of them – 19 – in the United Kingdom, followed by 8 in Germany and 7 in Spain, and far fewer in other countries). Elections in Polish electoral districts abroad will take place on May 25th, the same date as in Poland. The only thing Poles have to do to prove they are mature citizens is to go and vote.

Poles abroad: mature citizens or shy immigrants

Every single vote counts, it is said. Each vote obviously counts for the candidates, but the number of Polish immigrants who vote in the 2014 EP elections will also influence their position in the countries where they choose to live, possibly turning them from immigrants into mature citizens. By proving that they can – and will – make use of their political rights, they could send a clear message to local politicians to consider them a serious electorate and try to win their support by addressing their specific needs. What Poles (and other immigrants) would appreciate are chances for better integration in education and the job market, as well as fighting anti-immigrant rhetoric and xenophobia, discrimination, etc. So far, the situation has been quite the opposite. They have been an easy target for politicians; even British Prime Minister David Cameron pointed specifically to the Poles living and working in Great Britain while talking about immigrants claiming benefits for children still living in their home countries. The Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Radosław Sikorski reacted to it immediately, but it shows that immigrants can often be a scapegoat in political debates. By proving that they can be an important electorate, Polish immigrants will become less vulnerable.

One problem is that Poles living in other EU countries are still not aware of their right to vote for local or Polish candidates for MEP positions and have limited access to information about electoral procedures in their country of residence. Language, complex procedures, requirements to register with the election authorities (which exist in countries with the highest numbers of Polish migrants, such as UK and Ireland) – these can create serious barriers and discourage immigrants from voting. Moreover, even while living in Poland, many of these people were not particularly active voters. Poland has the lowest turnout among all the post-communist countries in the region, with an average total of 45% in parliamentary elections. Paradoxically, according to Paweł Ciacek, a sociologist from the Foundation Projekt Polska, Poles do not vote in the European Parliament elections either, despite being the most euro-enthusiastic nation in Europe. In 2009 Poland had one of the lowest voter turnouts in Europe: 24.53%, compared to the European average of 43%.

But as long as Polish migrants are not actively involved in democratic processes, either as voters or as candidates, they are not considered an important electorate by local politicians. As a result, their needs are ignored in political party programs and their interests are not represented on either the national or the European level. Now, however, there is finally a chance to change that.

Young immigrants: active and varied in views

To encourage Poles to vote, several pro-turnout initiatives involving the Polish diaspora living in the European Union have been established ahead of the upcoming elections (i.e. Vote! You are at home). Information campaigns are being conducted with the active participation of Polish migrants by local Polish NGOs in Belgium, Italy, Hungary, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Ireland and the United Kingdom. The Polish diaspora in the UK and Ireland is particularly very active.This shows that Polish migrants, mainly representatives of the so-called “young emigration,” have started to become aware of their own political power and take matters into their own hands. What is particularly interesting, according to the Institute of Public Affairs (Instytut Spraw Publicznych) from Poland, is that Polish migrants in the UK tend to be more actively involved in the social and political life of their new country of residence then they used to be back in Poland. Several factors influence this phenomenon, with one being particularly important: Poles are usually galvanized when faced with challenges and problems. As explained by Jacek Kucharczyk of ISP, “We can say perversely that we owe the increased political and social activity of Polish migrants living in Great Britain to the anti-immigrant and anti-European politics and rhetoric of the current British government.”

Shaping the future in Britain

Joint research by pollster Ipsos, Polarity UK, and Polish City Club’s Aspire project has found that Polish migrants are ready to shape the future of the UK. They want to stay in the United Kingdom permanently and take part in political processes in the country. 50% of Poles living in the UK are set to vote in the upcoming European and local elections. The survey shows a high level of migrant integration with British society. However, “respondents stress they find it difficult to find concise information about elections and the political system of the UK, even though they are willing to do so. A change in approach by the political parties, including campaigning with Polish-speaking volunteers, is much needed and may bring positive results for the parties as well,” says Dorota Zimnoch, president of the Polish City Club in the UK.

The survey shows also that 49% of Poles living in the UK intend to vote for British – and not Polish – MEPs, with 18% willing to support the Liberal Democrats, 16% Labour, and only 6% Conservatives, and with UKIP coming in fourth at 5%. However, a large number of voters – 50% – still does not know know whom to vote for. According to the records of the Electoral Registration Offices, as of March 30th, 2014, in the 33 boroughs of London, there are a total of 100,038 persons with Polish citizenship entitled to vote in the next election on May 22nd, 2014. This means that 65.5% of eligible Poles – over 100,000 voters in London alone – are registered to vote. If the turnout matches this number, it will be very a impressive result, proving that the passive immigrant is slowly becoming a thing of the past.

….but not in other countries

The tendency of voting for local – and not Polish – MEP candidates is also visible in other countries. According to the coordinator of the “Vote! You are at home” campaign in Spain, Joanna Ciborowska-Sanchez, the Polish minority in Spain is aware of the upcoming EP elections and many of them are already registered in Censo with the aim of voting for Spanish candidates.

“Most of the Poles with dual citizenship and Poles who already have families here will vote for Hungarian candidates,” says Milena Wartecka from Association Polonia Nova based in Budapest. As for young Poles living in Hungary and taking part in the election, an estimate number of 80-85% will vote for Polish candidates at the embassy.

A more complex situation is present in Belgium among several groups of Poles with different political and social sensibilities. One of them consists of workers from the European Commission and the European Parliament. According to Maciej Hilarowicz from the Emigration Project, they will vote at the Polish consulate for Polish candidates. This is “mainly because the information campaign run by the Belgian government was weak and there was not much time for registration (only until February 28th),” says Hilarowicz, stressing that this part of the Polish electorate in Belgium is more active than the average. Apart from these so-called Eurocrats, there is also a large number of Polish migrant workers living in Brussels and Antwerp. They are often not so euro-enthusiastic and may not vote at all. According to Hilarowicz, those who vote will do it at the Polish consulate with an average turnout similar to the one in Poland. The third group is made up of Poles with dual citizenship who came to Belgium in the late 80’s or early 90’s and represent the “old Polish diaspora.” They are well integrated with Belgian society and will vote for Belgian candidates, mainly because they are not really aware of current political life in Poland. Moreover, voting is obligatory for Belgian citizens. “A few of them will try to stretch the law and will come to vote in the Polish consulate, mainly driven by sentiment,” says Hilarowicz.

Sylwia Wessel from the Polish organization IDHEM (Integratie in Den Haag van Europese Migranten) in the Netherlands is more pessimistic. Based on her individual talks with other Polish migrants, she estimates that the number of people voting for Polish candidates will be significantly lower than during the local elections. Poles living in the Netherlands are also not interested in voting for Dutch candidates. “Some of them didn’t even open the mail containing the voting certificate, and just threw it away,” says Wessel, adding that many of them simply do not see the direct influence of the European Parliament on their daily lives.

Poles living in the European Union outside of Poland take advantage of many rights they are entitled to as citizens of the European Union. They are active on the job market and in the educational sector, becoming more and more appreciated as employees and as neighbors. But they still need to mark their presence in politics – first as active voters whose needs must not be neglected, and then, perhaps, as candidates themselves. Only with active participation in the political life of their new country of residence will their integration be completed. 

Aleksandra Minkiewicz

Aleksandra Minkiewicz

graduated with a degree in cultural sciences at the European University Viadrina and completed her post-graduate studies in the Oriental Institute at the University of Warsaw. She currently works for the Association School for Leaders as a coordinator of the “Vote! You are at home” pro-turnout campaign run in 8 EU countries.