As a Polish immigrant whose family remembers war, this is why I fear Brexit

Peace on EU soil since 1945 has been achieved by archenemies deciding that it is better to institutionally merge to the extent that conflict is rendered impossible

Micha P. Garapich
Tuesday 21 June 2016 16:41 BST
Europeans wave national flags to celebrate the Eurovision Song Contest in Copenhagen, 2014
Europeans wave national flags to celebrate the Eurovision Song Contest in Copenhagen, 2014 (Getty)

As polls point to the possibility of a vote to leave the European Union, my situation is getting a little scary. I’m an EU citizen living in Britain, a beneficiary of the freedom of movement within the EU, like 2.5 million others in Britain, and I feel increasingly uneasy about the turn of British politics and public discourse. I suddenly realize that, in fact, around half of Brits do not want me or my family around.

And although to call this atmosphere akin to Germany in the 1930s is a silly exaggeration, an insult to the victims of the Nazis, I feel that Britain is moving backwards. One of its most prized social achievements of last decades – the creation of an open, liberal, diverse and (relatively, of course) meritocratic society – is at risk from nationalistic protectionism and the narrow perception of an isolated island where things can go forever as they used to.

It is hard to underestimate the weight of the decision the Brits will make this week. They will decide not only about the UK future and its possible breakup, but may deliver a shock to the EU which the institution may not survive. The British electorate is therefore deciding on the future of a half billion people and the generations to come.

In this context, to mention immigration is rather trivial. And to argue that Brexit will bring control over British borders is inaccurate. My research among Polish and other Eastern and Central European migrants, before and after the EU enlargements in 2004 and 2007, shows that migrants always find ways to navigate and out-manoeuvre borders, restrictions and mobility regimes.

Britain is not an isolated island any more. Hundreds of thousands of EU migrants will rush for British passports to secure their freedoms; since restrictions will make circular migration less practical, Brexit may actually lead an increase in migration.

Eventually, markets will decide and, most likely, the post-Brexit arrangements will involve retaining some form of freedom of movement. There is no way around this. For growth, Britain will have to keep the borders relatively open.

This means that the only real impact of Brexit will be to weaken Europe and strengthen its enemies. And this is where the real argument lies: Europe is not a ‘thing’, it is an idea. It is not a policy; it is an emotion.

Emotion born out of the ashes of Warsaw and Dresden and the millions dead, from Stalingrad to Salamanca. We can endlessly argue about house prices and trade agreements, but Europe is not just that.

Call me a Pole with a historic chip on his shoulder, but for me – as for generations of Poles, French, Germans and Italians, and yes, also Brits – Europe and its institutions was the way to prevent another self-inflicted calamity this continent is so famous for. In order to do that, it was necessary to dilute sovereignty, since too much of it leads to lethal nationalisms.

My historic chip is an average Polish one, I guess. Both my grandfathers died as the result of war – one a cavalryman gunned down by Germans in a battle, the second died in a madhouse after two years in the Gross Rossen concentration camp and a year in communist jail.

Both my parents bear the scars of that war to this day. My dad, turning 80 last week, expressed fear that Brexit will lead to a more scary and nationalistic, more deadly Europe. He is not a political analyst, and he does not follow global events. He reads little these days. But as a child of war, he knows.

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Just as Europe is an emotion, so referendums are won and lost on emotions. The undecided should pause and think about Europe the way my father thinks about it. Peace on EU soil since 1945 has been achieved by archenemies deciding that it is better to institutionally merge to the extent that conflict is rendered impossible. This is the guarantee that keeps people together.

Britain, a blessed country that was not invaded, seems to be less sensitive to this, despite the fact that, in 1979, one of the campaign slogans in favour of the EU was: “It is better to lose sovereignty that a son or daughter”.

I came to this country in 1984. It was very different from now and London was the place that felt then on the periphery of history, not to mention on the fringe of the arts, food and science.

Today it is a global cultural centre and I feel at home here. A cliché of the contribution of immigrants into that creative and productive mosaic is only partially true, as it was the readiness of British society to absorb, accept and listen to these people that made what this country is today.

This unique, I think, British ability for intercultural communication made the creation of one of most diverse cities in the world possible. That’s something we should all be proud of.

Unfortunately, the rise of anti-immigrant emotions seems to indicate that there is also a darker side to this society. You, the undecided, can choose not to let it win.

Please do not ruin something that, so far, with all its problems and imperfections, has worked. And in your decision, do mention the war.

Dr Michał P. Garapich is a social anthropologist and senior lecturer at the University of Roehampton. His book on Polish migrants, 'London’s Polish Borders', is published by Ibidem

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