Analysis: Poles have different perspective on Brexit

Poles have a different perspective on Brexit than West Europeans. This is because 30 years ago they recall going through a far more dramatic upheaval than Brexit is likely to be.

Brexit has been of great interest in Poland because around a million Poles live in the UK. There has been a mix of concern over the rights of Poles in the UK combined with appeals by government officials for Poles to return home. A lot of trade is at stake too and Poles who want to study in the UK in the future still remain uncertain as to whether this will be feasible after Brexit.

This is why the British general election is being studied with considerable interest in Poland. People are torn between hopes that Britain might at the last moment decide to remain in the EU and those who just want the uncertainty to end now without further drama.

Brits fretting about Brexit is something Poles and other Central Europeans find mildly amusing. It's is not just puzzlement that a country should be trying to leave what Central Europeans had long dreamed of joining. An increasing number of Central Europeans are gradually becoming aware of the down sides of EU membership.

What people in Poland and Central Europe find amusing is the Brits getting so worried about the change itself, of doing something that has never been done before: a country leaving the EU. Back in 1989, Poles and other Central Europeans had to enter into the unknown by being the first countries ever to abandon communism. Now it is the British who will be the pioneers of leaving the EU.

Admittedly there was unanimity among Central Europeans about abandoning communism which is lacking in Britain with regard to leaving the EU. But it entailed far more dramatic change than anything that could happen with regard to Brexit. These countries had to adopt real currencies, abandon Comecon and the Warsaw Pact, totally restructure their economies and institutions.

Brexit will be nowhere near as dramatic. Britain has been a member of the EU for 47 years, which is only two years more than communism lasted in Central Europe. But the EU's impact on Britain is not anywhere near that of Soviet domination and communism in Central Europe. As a result the disentanglement will be much less severe.

No one knows what the effects of Brexit are going to be. There is no certainty that Britain will be better off or not. But there is one similarity with Central Europe in 1989 which is worth noting. Central Europeans wanted their independence, an ability to identify with whom and what they wanted and to make sovereign decisions about their future.

The geopolitics and economics of course limited that sovereignty and made virtually all those states seek membership of NATO and the EU. In Britain's case the main argument for leaving the EU is to do with sovereignty. And like Central Europe Britain will find that this sovereignty is going to be limited by other means than the EU. But those decisions are for the future.

For now Britain has little other choice than to embrace the democratic decision and try and make Brexit work. It means challenges as well as opportunities. All changes do. But the challenges and changes should not be exaggerated. Britain is not changing its political system. Nor is it leaving the Western world. It has coped with much greater challenges in the past such as the struggle against Germany in the Second World War and the dismantling of the Empire.

But since Central Europe has gone through a period of dramatic and successful change maybe it is time that Britain looked seriously at the lessons of making changes and working in an improvised way. This is an area of cooperation that should be looked at. Britain was very helpful and flexible in the time when Central Europe was freeing itself from communism. The experiences it helped Central Europe with may now have instructive lessons for the Britain of today.

Certainly there is very little appetite in Central Europe to ‘punish’ Britain for leaving the EU. Poland will be sad to lose an ally on issues relating to the single market and enlarging the EU in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. But it wants to keep good relations with a trusted NATO ally and a valued trading partner.

This is why Poland will be one of the countries in the coming negotiations on the future of EU-British trade pressing for a deal to be done with Britain granted as much free access as possible. This is unlikely to change regardless of which party governs in Warsaw.