Poles Flock to the “Promised Green Island”

As the May 1, 2004, date for the accession of the ten new EU member-states approached, most current EU members started to get cold feet about the Union’s “free labor mobility” aspect, which is supposed to mean that any EU citizen can go work freely in any other EU state than his own. For the Spanish or Portuguese moving to, say, Austria or Germany, that’s OK – studies show that in fact European workers are generally to little inclined to leave the home and culture they are used to to make use of this facility anyway. But then all those Czechs, Hungarians, and especially Poles? – who could even triple the value of their current wages at home by moving into their new brother EU countries, and/or who would be eligible for the much more generous social welfare programs over there if their job-search did not pan out? That was something else again; in the face of this, that “free labor mobility” would simply have to be suspended for a while, and most current EU member-states accordingly took advantage of provisions gained in accession negotiations with the ten entering states to set up various (temporary) restrictions on those nationals being able to come to their countries to gain work or social welfare benefits.

Ireland was the exception, imposing no such restrictions. And well it would not, since Ireland has continued to be the “Celtic Tiger” high-growth economy – at least relative to other pre-May, 2004, EU members – that attracted so much attention from international observers in the late 1990s. Today unemployment is still under 4% there, meaning that labor is in short supply, and foreigners are flocking to supply it – particularly foreigners from Ireland’s new fraternal EU member-states, and particularly Poles. This phenomenon is described in the article Promised Green Island by Jedrzej Bielecki in the mainstream Polish daily Rzeczpospolita.

“Poles are storming into Ireland,” reads the first sentence of the lead-in to Bielecki’s article, and Irish government numbers seem to back this assertion up. In the first three months after accession (i.e. this May- July), 11,000 Poles have gained an Irish work-permit, compared to the 4,000 Poles who were working there before accession (that the Irish government knows about, at least). This figure represents nearly half of the full 23,000 permits issued to citizens of new member-states during that three-month period. (Bielecki says that Latvians and Lithuanians made up a big chunk of the rest.) But no surprise there, according to Cezary Lusinski of the Polish embassy in Dublin: Ireland currently needs tens of thousands of new workers, particularly in the hotel, restaurant, tourist, and agricultural sectors. Oh yes, the country also needs more doctors and engineers, although there are still not so many of those arriving.


Is this truly a “storm”? Here’s a little context to help you decide: the Irish number 4 million (and we’re talking here of course of the Republic, so not the eight northern counties that are part of the UK), and a total of 64,000 foreigners of all descriptions gained work-permits there during that May-to-July period of this year. Conleth Brady, secretary of the Irish embassy in Warsaw, expects his country to continue to get 4,000 legal Polish immigrants per month – at least until (if?) the Polish economy recovers and grows enough to start to offer enough economic opportunity to all its citizens, and/or when those restrictions imposed by other older EU states expire in a few year’s time and Poles start to go there in greater numbers. (The fuss over imposing barriers to UK social benefits gave the misleading impression that that was the Poles’ preferred destination, but in fact one-third more Poles gained work permits during this period in Ireland.)

Still, along with its racing economy Ireland also boasts Europe’s highest inflation rate, so that the Polish embassy there is getting tired of being petitioned for help to return home from stranded Poles. If you don’t already have a job arranged for you before you arrive, don’t bother to come, says Brady.

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