I am sure that most readers will be aware that there are now approximately 800,000 Poles living in the UK. Many, because of Brexit uncertainty and the health pandemic, have now left. However, Polish nationals are still one of the largest minority groups in the UK.
Polish migration to the UK has a long standing history. But did you know that there are currently only 12 serving Polish Cllrs in the UK? In my view, although the current Parliament has never been more diverse, the lack of political representation is still evident.
In May 2020, Poland and UK have signed a bilateral agreement. This step was and is significant for number of reasons:
- Polish nationals in the UK and British nationals in Poland will be able to vote and stand in the Local and County Council elections.
- This agreement will help us to continue shaping the future of Local Governments in both countries.
- It will also, most importantly, allow us to continue being part of the democratic and civic process, which must be exercised and which can’t be taken for granted.
Apart from Poland, also Spain, Portugal and Luxembourg have reached an agreement with the British government. This is a hugely important step in ensuring that the ‘civic journey’ of EU nationals can continue and it can be developed further. However, this agreement covers only 2021 elections and therefore it is very important to pressure both governments to secure our voting rights in the future.
It is also very clear that there are still significant gaps in relation to civic engagement of many communities in the UK. A number of Polish residents don’t exercise their right to vote and they are ‘democratically disconnected’. A colleague of mine, Civic Mayor of Watford and the Polish Cllr, and myself met last year with the Polish Ambassador in the UK to talk about a project which could help to address the issue of civic engagement, participation and the importance of voting. We too must try to re-build our ‘civic confidence’, encourage others to take an active role in shaping policies at the local and national level. We need to continue working in partnership other agencies to change negative perceptions but most importantly to intensify the dialogue between various public institutions and our citizens. After UK’s departure from the EU, it is even more important. Many people aren’t aware that they can still be part of the political process.
How this could be addressed? One of the key learning for me in the last year is the need for a ‘political education’. During the lockdown, I was asked a number of times to be part of various webinars. It is now so easy to ‘meet’. I still do hugely miss the social interaction, however I am aware that some of these events would not have happened if it didn’t have such a good access to our online technology.
As a Trustee of New Europeans, I was recently taking part in an event called Tuesday Conversations, which explored the way in which pandemic affected our lives. We also spoke about small things, which kept us going during the lockdown. We also discussed Europe, its current and future challenges.
Last year, as a Polish national, I was invited to speak at an event organised by the 3million, charity which supports the EU nationals in the UK. It was called: “Where are the EU residents' voices in politics? Open discussion & consultation on the representation of EU communities in the UK”. During the event, I had an opportunity to share my experiences as a former Cllr. It was fantastic to explore ways in which each one of us can make a difference: volunteer, campaign on a particular topic which is close to our hearts, write a letter to a newspaper, your local Cllr, MP, organise a trip to the Houses of Parliament or take part in the Parliament Week event. I felt connected with young people and I was so happy to offer my advice. It was also so refreshing to see young people so keen and willing to enter the world of ‘community activism’ and who were determined to be part of the political process.
My conclusion? Politics hugely affect our lives. The next local, post pandemic, elections are around the corner. We must do our best to educate ourselves and help others to understand the importance of the democratic process. I equally believe that our role is also to build a house of 'political dialogue', a house which encourages a wide range of political opinions but it is also a place where each option matters and is embraced. Our role is to build the politics as a vehicle for a positive social change. This is a message which I will be trying to convey to my fellow Europeans. Our voices must continue to be heard.