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Poland’s Deceptive Enthusiasm for Europe

Some Poles actually aren’t so comfortable with the values that the EU is pushing.

by Martin Ehl 15 March 2017

Switching on the Polish news channel TVN24 this past Monday morning seemed like a trip back in time. Two journalists were discussing if the situation for the nation’s political representatives is comparable to 1939, when lonely Poland faced Nazi and Soviet aggression with only symbolic help from allies such as France and the United Kingdom.


Such loneliness within the European political scene is part of the "syndrome of 1939," says Eugenius Smolar, a political analyst from the Center for International Politics in Warsaw. And that’s exactly how some Polish officials appear to feel after the conservative government lost a vote to extend the mandate of former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk as the head of the European Council – a position sometimes compared to the president of the EU.


The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) can thank itself for such despair after putting a purely national issue on the international agenda. The personal revenge of PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski against Tusk, his longtime rival, is not understandable in Brussels, Berlin, or Paris to the same degree as Kaczynski and his leadership do not understand the damage they have made to the Polish position in Europe (Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski outraged many when he said that now the government “must drastically lower the level of trust in the EU”).


This domestic dispute has called attention to the broader question of the social and cultural “revolution” that the Polish conservatives have been attempting to push through Polish society since their electoral victory in 2015.


Take the question of support for the EU. In opinion research, Poles declare themselves to be enthusiastic backers of the union, something demonstrated again earlier this week when the daily Rzeczpospolita published a poll showing 78 percent support for EU membership. But digging deeper into that data reveals a more nuanced show of support. For many, the “EU" means, above all, money from Brussels, which has engendered a visible and palpable civilizational change in Poland over the last decade and a half.


"But under the surface Poles are more divided than it seems," says Lukasz Lipinski, deputy director of Polityka Insight, an independent think tank in Warsaw. "It is about half-and-half if you go to questions like minorities or refugees.” The same can be said of other EU-related issues, such as abortions, the role of the Catholic Church, and the openness of society to other cultures and opinions.


Reflective of those worries, for example, is a growing tendency for young Poles to vote or support nationalist, right-wing parties, warns Eugeniusz Smolar, who is co-author of "Polish Views of the EU: the Illusion of Consensus,” a study published by the Batory Foundation that describes the division in detail.


Simply put, the PiS cultural revolution has brought to the fore the unease of a large part of Polish society with different trends of modernity. "Poland's ethnic and religious homogeneity cause society to define national identity in a rather closed manner," states one of the conclusions of the study. That could be part of the explanation why the seemingly prevalent, European, liberal openness was so easily exchanged since the PiS election for a more distant and closed approach toward the European Union.  


"Poles are anti-European, but they don’t know it yet," says Lipinski, only half-jokingly.


Also significant on a practical, daily level is that Kaczynski does not have any close and trusted partner in his inner circle who would be at the same time pro-European and armed with enough knowledge of European policy.


The weight of national politics is on the rise all over the EU, and Poland is not exceptional in this recent display. But while the majority of EU governments are able to differentiate between national and European political decisions – or at least explain their priorities in advance to their partners – the Poles (and Hungarians) live more and more in their own worlds.


That’s not a good message for a Europe expecting this year tough tests of its solidarity, unity, and cohesion, as the populist wave spreads through the Western part of the continent as well.   

Martin Ehl 
is the foreign editor of the Czech daily Hospodarske noviny. He tweets at @MartinCZV4EU.
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