The UK has always had a love/hate relationship with France. But when it comes to May’s Brexit Britain, that distinguished honour might soon be usurped by Poland. First and foremost, migration and free movement is by far and away the most important part of the Brexit negotiations for both countries. Whilst the Brits want to “get back control” of migration policy, the Polish government naturally wants to defend the rights of its 830,000 citizens living in the UK. Interestingly, according to the UK’s own Office of National Statistics data (see here, particularly tab 1.4 of the excel sheet for 2015 data) the Polish community in the UK is now the single biggest expat community, larger than former commonwealth countries such as India and Pakistan but also other EU27 countries such as Ireland and Germany. So the political stakes are high on both sides to achieve a sensible deal on citizens rights early on in the Brexit process and to agree a longer term solution on migration policy as part of the future UK/EU relationship. This will be facilitated if there is a significant intensification of bi-lateral dialogue between the UK and Poland. It’s no secret that Poland feels let down by the UK. From initially being the champion of EU enlargement, including the “big bang” accession of Poland and nine other central and eastern countries in the early 2000s, successive British governments since have done little to foster stronger dialogue with Poland.
But Brexit exemplifies the potential for the love/hate relationship to evolve further in one direction or another. Some examples of “love” include a supportive op-ed by Polish Prime Minster Beata Szydlo during her November 2016 trip to London and more recent helpful comments from a UK perspective by Polish national and European Council President Donald Tusk. However, these are juxtaposed with some examples of “hate” including Poland’s anger at former PM Cameron’s suggestion to limit EU citizens’ access to benefits and more recently PM May’s unwillingness to support the Polish government’s candidate to replace Donald Tusk (Tusk is a political nemesis for the current Polish government). Mrs May knows that Polish support will be important on Brexit. But she also knows that the current Polish government’s influence and credibility with other EU27 Member States is at an all time low. As such, she has a difficult balancing act ahead.