It will be interesting to watch Poland over the next couple of decades. Sandwiched between Germany and Russia, smaller than either of these neighbours, Poland has some fairly solid historical ground to be concerned about its geographical and strategic position. Its government is trying to position the country closer to the USA as a defence against potential Russian encroachments.
At the same time the EU is becoming more and more critical of Poland’s internal governance positions. It is further offside with the EU over Poland’s hard-line opposition to migrant quotas that entered the continent in the migration waves of 2015 and 2016 from North Africa and the Middle East.
Poland’s tightrope diplomacy is strengthened by its economic development – it is one of the strongest economic performers in Europe. Its government naturally wants this economic growth to continue, but there is a serious and familiar headwind to further growth: demography.
POland is a middle-sized nation of about 38 million people. Indeed, this has been its population for the last 25 years or so. It has a low fertility rate of around 1.45 children per woman and the last handful of years have seen the country’s natural population growth tip over into negative territory. This is particularly problematic since it has seen about 2.5 million of its citizens leave since 2004 for other countries in the EU.
Add this to its anti-immigration stance and you have a country which is failing to reproduce itself and is also unable to rely on migration flows to prop up its population like so many other Western nations are able to do. The Polish government is trying to increase the nation’s birthrate, but this will, even if successful, take time to have effect. And all the time, Poland’s economy suffers. The New York Times reports that a survey by Work Service, Poland’s largest employment agency, found that more than half of the companies in Poland reported having trouble finding workers.
So it is no surprise that the ruling Law and Justice party (described as “far-right” in the NYTimes piece, of course) is trying to solve this demographic problem. What may be surprising is that this “anti-migrant” party is presiding over “the largest influx of migrant workers in the country’s modern history.” But these aren’t migrants from Africa or the Middle East; they are from neighbouring, Christian, Ukraine.
According to Eurostat, more than 630,000 foreigners received their first residence permits in Poland in 2017. This is a number equivalent to 1.6 percent of the Polish population and is the highest absolute number for any country in the EU. There are now over two million Ukrainians working in Poland. The key point is that these migrants are from neighbouring countries that are “culturally similar” to Poland and are Christian. The government has proposed legislation that will make it easier for people from former Soviet satellite countries that are culturally similar to Poland to become permanent residents.
This preference for Christian migrants to Poland is in line with the Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki’s comments in a 2017 interview that his government wants “to reshape Europe and re-Christianise it”. All new passports issued by Poland now include the phrase “God, Honor, Motherland”.
There is no doubting Poland’s need for more workers to replace the babies that the Poles haven’t had and the young workers that have fled to other countries. There is also no doubting the Polish government’s preference for Christian, European migrants. However, Poland is fishing for workers in waters that its larger neighbours are also interested in.
We noted a couple of weeks ago that Russia is looking for 10 million migrants from formers Soviet countries, including the Ukraine. At the same time Germany is also easing requirements for skilled workers and is targeting Ukrainians. A recent newspaper survey found that 59 per cent of Ukrainians in Poland would leave for Germany if possible. It is also worth noting that Ukraine’s population has been naturally declining for nearly three decades now.
In short, all of Eastern Europe is running out of babies. The remaining pool of workers will become more attractive as the years pass to the larger economies of Poland, Russia and Germany. The competition between these powers for the declining workforce will probably only increase.
Marcus Roberts is co-editor of Demography is Destiny.