By Justyna Pawlak and Pawel Sobczak
WARSAW (Reuters) - Poland's eurosceptic government has long said it would like Poles living in Britain to return home, but it is now promising to fight for their right to stay after the British vote to leave the European Union.
The roughly 800,000 Poles resident in Britain helped stimulate an emotive debate over record high immigration that helped the "Leave" side win the June 23 referendum on EU membership, and the conditions under which Poles may be able to stay in the UK will be subject to future Brexit negotiations.
For Poland's ruling conservatives, a return of Poles from Britain could be seen as a vote of confidence in their government, in place since a sweeping election victory last October on a promise of more economic equality.
But analysts say Prime Minister Beata Szydlo's Law and Justice (PiS) party is being pragmatic. With salaries in Poland a fraction of what they are in Britain, any returnees might turn sour on her government. Opinion polls also show the majority want to remain in the UK and expect the government to help them.
"The Poles in Britain are an important part of the PiS electorate, so are their families," said Agata Gostynska-Jakubowska, a research fellow at London's Centre for European Reform think tank. "It would be risky to use the situation to persuade the Poles to return."
The vast majority of Poles in Britain have arrived since 2004 when Poland joined the EU, giving citizens the option of moving to one of the bloc's strongest economies, with plentiful jobs and relatively low taxes.
Many of Britain's Poles came from economically deprived smaller towns in their homeland where PiS support is strong.
Detailed negotiations between the EU and Britain over the exact terms of its split have yet to start. EU leaders have insisted Britain must continue to accept the free movement of EU citizens if it wants to enjoy unbroken access to the bloc's lucrative single market of 500 million people.
Poland has said it will seek to preserve its citizens' status quo in Britain, which includes the right to work and access to welfare benefits.
"My dream is that they return to Poland. These people have incredible experience ... and financial resources," deputy prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki told private broadcaster TVN24.
"(But) we will try to negotiate so that our citizens, Poles who have settled in well in Britain, are not treated worse than the Brits. That's obvious."
Morawiecki said he expected Poland's labor market, where unemployment fell to eight-year lows of 8.8 percent in June, to be able to absorb many returnees, if needed.
"I assume it would be possible for the Polish labor market to absorb them in the course of two or three years. I would like it very much if at least 100,000 to 200,000 people decided to return."
That may be optimistic. An opinion poll by IBRIS conducted between June 29 and July 1 showed that two-thirds of Poles living in Britain wanted to stay but 20 percent would leave for Poland if this proved impossible after an exit from the EU.
Less than six percent said the Brexit vote meant they wanted go back. Almost 16 percent said they would leave Britain but move elsewhere in the EU or outside the bloc.
"Our research shows that most Poles who would be forced to leave Britain would go to countries such as Germany, France or the Netherlands," said Andrzej Kubisiak of the London-listed employment agency Work Service.
"Salaries in many sectors are comparable to Britain there."
Economically, a return home of a substantial number of Poles could have a mixed impact, analysts say.
The amount of cash they send to families in Poland has fallen in recent years from about 2 percent of gross domestic product in 2009 alone. Upward pressure on salaries would ease, as well.
An influx of the mostly young migrants would help offset Poland's demographic problems. With one of the lowest birth rates in Europe, Poland faces increasing difficulties in making pension payments.
Government officials hope a return of expatriates would also reverse an outflow of skilled labor.
But analysts say thousands of Poles in Britain will probably now seek permanent residence status that is available to foreigners who have lived in Britain for at least four years.
A study by the Polish Institute of International Affairs think tank indicates that some 120,000 to 400,000 Poles - about half or less - may not qualify for this now.
"Of course we want them to return," a senior PiS official told Reuters. "But we need to have the ability to receive them. We will, when the economy is in better shape."
(Additional reporting by Wiktor Szary and Marcin Goettig; editing by Mark Heinrich)