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Polish entrepreneurs in Britain are unfazed by the prospect of Brexit

Posted by hkarner - 2. September 2016

Date: 01-09-2016
Source: The Economist
Feelings were hurt by the Leave campaign, but new opportunities beckon

TALKING behind his grocery shop’s generously stocked sausage-counter, a gloomy Daniel Przybylowski says it is time to sell up. Yet those who voted for Brexit on June 23rd in the hope of reducing the number of European migrants may be disappointed to learn that Mr Przybylowski is not going home to Poland as a consequence of the referendum. Far from it: it is the business rates that have defeated him. He hopes to recoup all his investment, at least, and is determined to start another business—in Britain.

Mr Przybylowski typifies the attitude of the 90,000 or so Polish entrepreneurs and self-employed who make up a growing share of Britain’s economy. Last year Poles overtook Indians as the largest foreign-born group in the country, at an estimated 831,000. Consequently they became a target for hostility towards EU migration during, and after, the referendum campaign. In Hammersmith, a west London suburb down the road from Mr Przybylowski’s shop, a Polish cultural centre was daubed with racist graffiti following the vote. On August 27th a Polish man was beaten to death outside a takeaway restaurant in Harlow, Essex; police are treating the murder as a “potential hate crime”. In the feverish aftermath of the referendum vote there was talk among Poles as to how many might feel forced to leave. But after two months of political inaction, the atmosphere has changed. Feelings were hurt by the Leave campaign, but Polish entrepreneurs are now weighing up new opportunities rather than dwelling on Brexit’s risks.

That is fortunate for Britain, as last year Poles formed more business entities—14,475—than any other group, ahead of the Irish, Chinese and Indians. According to the Centre for Entrepreneurs, a lobby group, by 2014 Poles had founded nearly 22,000 limited companies, the third-biggest number among EU citizens after Germans and Irish. This is remarkable given that most Poles came to Britain only after 2004, when Poland joined the EU.

About 65,000 Poles are self-employed. Many are the bricklayers, plumbers and electricians who have become ubiquitous on British building sites. But Poles have been successfully moving into other sectors, such as finance, IT and retail. Often these businesses have thrived by offering goods and services to Poles in Britain who come to work rather than settle, and as a consequence have limited English. Piotr Kubalka, who runs an accountancy firm in Ealing, came to Britain in 2000 with £274 (then $358) in his pocket. Five years later he set up the company and now employs 35 people, dealing with 3,000 clients, mostly Polish.

Another firm that has made a success of catering to the community is Mlecko, which claims to be the biggest Polish-run company in Europe outside Poland. Founded 20 years ago, the supermarket chain now has 11 shops, mainly around west London, the centre of the country’s Polish community. It imports all of its food and drink from Poland and has its own trucking company and warehouses, as well as its own bakery. It employs about 450 people.

Mlecko is an example of the sophisticated supply chains that have been built up between Poland and Britain. Nowadays a shopkeeper like Mr Przybylowski can buy all his stock in London rather than import it from Poland, as he had to in the past. This is one reason why Poles are reluctant to turn their backs on Britain: they have invested too much to quit. Wladyslaw Mlecko, the supermarket-chain’s founder, is ignoring Brexit and pressing ahead with plans to open two new stores and another bakery. The next event of the Congress of Polish Entrepreneurs in the UK is on how to scale up a business, not how to wind it down.

And Poles are increasingly entrenched in other respects. There are 30,000 Polish-speaking pupils in London’s state schools. Another 20,000 children are born in Britain to Polish mothers each year (one-quarter have non-Polish fathers).

Wiktor Moszczynski, an activist and former councillor in Ealing, rolls his eyes at the prospect of a large-scale return of the Poles to their homeland, although he admits that some who had planned to come to Britain will hesitate until the terms of Brexit become clearer. As Mr Kubalka puts it, having survived the Nazi and Soviet occupations, Poles can perfectly well survive a Brexit.

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