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Witold Sobkow: ‘Poles in Britain learn that people from different races can live together’

Ten years ago next week, EU expansion led to an historic influx of migrants. In the first of a week-long series examining its impact on Britain, Poland’s ambassador tells Emily Dugan why the number of his compatriots arrivals is slowing

Emily Dugan
Monday 21 April 2014 21:18 BST

There are few people more enthusiastic about Britain than Witold Sobkow, Poland’s ambassador to the UK. Almost evangelical in his praise, Mr Sobkow believes that the numbers of people who emigrate here should be celebrated as a reflection of its success.

“I love Britain,” he says, sitting in the gilt-edged opulence of the Polish embassy, a Georgian town house in London’s Portland Place. “I love the monarchy, the castles, the palaces and the landscapes. I don’t even mind the weather… it is a perfect place to live.

“I often say you are a victim of your success. People concentrate on [immigration] and numbers but they don’t ask why people come here. Why don’t they go to other countries? Because they feel at home here. The measure of success is the numbers.”

And the numbers certainly have been big. Next week it will be 10 years since Poland joined the EU, along with nine other new members from Eastern Europe. The last Labour government predicted just 13,000 people would move to Britain from these nations after 2004, but more than one million arrived in one of the biggest waves of immigration seen in this country.

Two-thirds were Polish. But Mr Sobkow believes that Poland’s increasing affluence is bringing mass-migration from his country to an end. “This huge wave of people who came to EU countries trying to get well-paid jobs is over now,” he says. “There are more opportunities in Poland. We have had huge economic success, wages are higher and there are more jobs in many parts, so I think this is over.”

He added: “Of course people would like to stay in Poland and not live abroad. They love the UK but if you are at home there is no place like home. People speak the same language, it is the same culture, the same system of education, health service; they would rather stay at home if there is a well-paid job.”

Mr Sobkow was a lecturer at Warsaw University for 10 years before becoming a diplomat after the revolution in 1989. His first posting was in London, as deputy head of mission, then in Ireland as ambassador and most recently as a permanent representative to the UN.

The 53-year-old, who bears a resemblance to Lord Sugar, is a self-confessed Anglophile. “I’ve spent 10 years in Britain so I’ve always wanted to be here,” he says. “I have a very special relationship with the UK. My first time in Britain was in 1979, when my family remained in the Midlands after the Second World War. They took me to a small town called Grantham. They said, ‘We have a new Prime Minister – her name is Margaret Thatcher, we want to show you Grantham, where she was born.’”

Opponents to Britain’s membership of the EU have suggested foreign workers are taking British construction jobs, but Mr Sobkow says the type of work done by Polish migrants is changing.

“I know a lot of people who came just after 2004. Those that didn’t speak good English started off with simple jobs like washing up dishes, working as security guards or picking fruit, because they wanted to learn English. They started going to English schools to learn the language and they got promoted and they took other courses… and now they have much better jobs.”

He says that as Poles become more settled in Britain, they are now more likely to be working in the City, as doctors, or in other professional roles. “Things have changed. Before, when people from Poland came here they used to work in restaurants and they picked fruits. They are not there now. I have just seen a show on TV where people were picking strawberries and the farmer was asked, ‘Do you have any people from Poland?’ The answer was clear: none. They want to have better jobs, they want to be promoted; they want to work hard and save money.”

He will not be drawn to comment on the rise of Ukip, saying instead that he would encourage Polish citizens to vote in the European elections. He adds: “It is not black and white. There are some relatively young people from Poland who are members of Ukip and they have this group, Friends of Poland in Ukip.”

The thought of Britain leaving the EU is something which he says “of course” worries him. “I hope it is never going to happen,” he adds, looking grave. “We need the UK in the EU. We cannot interfere with the internal affairs of the UK. But if you ask me what Poland thinks about it, they would say it is one of the most important members of the European Union and without the UK, the EU would be very different and we would not like to have the EU without the UK.”

Mr Sobkow believes that some Polish migrants take home tolerance after living in Britain. “You are a multicultural society but in Poland we are not so much… You have people from all over the world here with different religions, traditions, different customs.

“It can show that people from different races can live together, co-operate together, make friends and make peace. They do not just bring savings when they come back, they bring tolerance.”

Poles apart: Sobkow speaks out

On British people moving to Poland

“We have a lot of British investors in Poland and British citizens living there… People are coming to live and stay because life is safe, prices are lower, the economic situation is good. We have British and French schools, good facilities, highways, golf courses.”

On the stereotype of the Polish labourer

“To some extent it is unfair but on the other hand we have excellent construction workers and plumbers and mechanics so I think they should be proud of this because they are excellent specialists.”

On xenophobia in Britain towards Polish people

“We worry about racism… Of course, from time to time we have some cases directed against the Polish communities here. For example, some time ago we had a motorcyclist with a Polish flag on his helmet who was beaten up.”

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