Whenever discussion turns to the recent wave of Polish migration, the focus is invariably on the changes – for better and worse – that the arrival of so many Poles is having here. The results of this weekend's Polish elections suggest we should also be considering what changes the migrants' experience might be bringing about there.
In Britain on Sunday Polish voters had 22 polling stations at their disposal. An estimated 700,000 Poles were eligible to vote in the London area alone. The queue of Poles waiting to vote in Dublin was described as awe-inspiring. They spoke of casting their vote as a duty and a privilege. They might be living temporarily or even permanently abroad, but they still felt responsible for the fate of their homeland.
It would be premature to conclude that the votes cast in Britain and Ireland decided this election by themselves. But more than 1 million votes is a lot, and the leaders of both main parties came to Britain to campaign. Opinion polls were also clear: the majority of expatriate votes would be cast for Donald Tusk, leader of the Civic Platform party, whose landslide victory was confirmed yesterday.
This represents quite a turnaround. Only two years have passed since the popular vote forced Mr Tusk to concede the presidency to Lech Kaczynski of the Law and Justice Party and the parliamentary elections to his twin, Jaroslaw. The westward exodus of as many as 2 million mostly young and often well-qualified Poles has happened in between.
Something else that has happened, of course, is two years of government by the Kaczynski twins, who seemed to look increasingly inward and backward, even as more and more Poles started, of necessity, looking outward and forward. There can be scarcely anyone in Poland today who does not know someone who has left the country to improve their lot, or is unaware of the cost to the country in terms of revenue and expertise.
Mr Tusk, who was a small businessman at a time when business of any sort was a dirty word, pitched his appeal to precisely this constituency. He proposes to accelerate free-market reforms in the hope of winning back a good many of those who have left. But he also wants to improve Poland's image abroad, which he – rightly – accused the Kaczynskis of tarnishing. Over the past two years, Poland has come across to the world as prickly, formalistic and preoccupied with a selective national memory.
Different countries make different arrangements for expatriates to vote in national elections. Britain makes it more difficult than most. But the effect on a country of having a proportion of its citizens studying, working – even fighting – abroad should never be underestimated. Soldiers returning from the American War of Independence are often cited as one of the factors precipitating the French Revolution. Gandhi studied law in London. It was as student-workers in 1920s France that Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping hatched the ideas that were eventually put into practice as Chinese Communism. Disillusioned Russian veterans of the Afghan war were among the forces that undermined the Soviet Union.
Gazing into the future, it is worth asking what the long-term effects on China will be of having so many of its citizens studying abroad, or here in Britain of having a generation of the military returning from an unpopular war in Iraq. Nicolas Sarkozy's victory in the French elections this year may also owe at least something to the free-market French diaspora that is living and earning well in Britain.
Relatively, the numbers are small, but for each individual, with his own "foreign" impressions and ideas, there may be hundreds, thousands, even millions, whose outlook they influence in some way. But the reverse is also true. The strong showing of Switzerland's xenophobic right in elections that also took place this weekend reflects the fortress mentality of a country that imports more people than it exports and buys more influence than it brokers. And while the US still prides itself on its openness to immigration, it has been far less open to incoming ideas. The US Peace Corps goes abroad to spread American ideals, not absorb alternative ways of doing things. Nor are we in Britain immune from ideological insularity.
Sunday's Polish elections offer a living essay in the unintended consequences of migration. Directly – through their experiences and the money they have sent back – and indirectly, through friends, family and frustrated employers in their homeland, the young Poles seeking their fortune in the EU cannot but have influenced the results. The outcome may not in itself have brought Warsaw back into the European mainstream, but it has surely afforded Poland a new start.