By Kinga Jaromin, Master student of Centre for Europe, University of Warsaw and Ambassador to Poland for the European Student Think Tank.
Soon after the new Polish government started its term in the office, Polish and international news reported that the new Prime Minister, Beata Szydlo, has decided to remove the European Union flag from the podium from which she gives conferences. Now, only the Polish flag will be on display. It was a clear manifesto: Poland is switching its foreign policy orientation and tough times have arrived for its relations with the EU.
Analytics and political commentators all ask the same question: does this mean that Poland will transform from the EU integration advocate into a driver of Euro-skepticism?
The General elections of October 2015 brought a new government into Poland: after 8 years in office, the Civic Platform (PO) was defeated by its most serious competitor, the populist right-wing party Law and Justice (PiS). In the lead up, the change about to occur was obvious to all political observers. A centrist party with a welcoming attitude towards EU integration was replaced by moderate Eurosceptics with nationalistic inclinations. The most important election promises of PiS included lowering the retirement age and giving additional social benefits for children: ideas that could put the country’s budget in danger, but that were very attractive to the party’s voters.
It is very likely that foreign policy will be treated in the same irresponsible manner. PiS is far more distrustful towards the EU and some important international players, such as Germany and Russia, than the previous governing party, and it has publicly professed this attitude.. It openly regards the EU as a threat to Polish sovereignty, which – according to the party’s politicians – manifests itself in an imposition of “unacceptable” laws like same-sex marriage or accepting refugee quotas.
The party’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, multiple times paid his respect to Victor Orban, promising to “create a new Budapest in Warsaw”. This has been a clear indicator of the direction his governance would follow. The party’s attitude does not leave room for interpretation: Poland is about to drastically change its policy and become one of the driving forces of Euro-skepticism within the European Union.
From love to skepticism: the attitude of Poles towards the EU
Times used to be different for Poland. While being led by Donald Tusk (the current president of the European Council), the country improved its position on the EU political arena, mostly thanks to a strategic partnership with Germany. As a leader in the region in EU funds spending, it has significantly improved its infrastructure and gained the image of an Eastern European leader in economy. Despite the global economic crisis, Poland remained in quite good shape in comparison to other EU countries, strengthening its position as a respected and reliable partner.
Polish people usually ranked at the top of surveys in terms of trust towards the European Union and the support for the membership, generously taking advantage of its funding and rights to migration within the common market. One might ask, what has changed since then? With regards to the EU, nothing much. Poles still value the organisation very highly, which is visible in latest polls.. However, the PiS’s attitude to the EU was not the reason why a part of society gave it their vote. Rather, it was tiredness and stagnation, and a vow for a change of internal politics.
Euroscepticism on rise in Europe
On the other hand, the support of the EU among Poles since 2008 has been decreasing, but that is a common trend among all EU members. In the past few years the EU faced many challenges which has undermined its position of good-standing among citizens. Europe has survived the economic crisis, the critical situation in the Euro-zone and the fear of Grexit. Soon after that the migration strait has come, and it still remains unsolved. Each of these predicaments has been a partial contribution to the current situation where national interests have returned to the spotlight and there is less willingness among EU members’ leaders to keep the pace of integration.
Lack of solidarity and trust has become common. It used to be reserved for some of more conservative parts of societies or for populist parties, but now it has captured the minds of the most prominent member state politicians, including members of governments. Brexit, which was only a form of a threat to the EU, is turning into a possibility; Denmark rejects the idea of closer integration in justice; and EU countries’ leaders discuss the possibility of suspending the Schengen agreement for two years and bringing border checks back. These attitudes emanating from EU members will strengthen the position of the new Polish government and will encourage it to play the anti-EU card – even if that was not the reason it was elected.
Poland – a leader of the Eurosceptic fraction?
New Polish leaders will not consider stepping out of the EU any time soon. It would be difficult even to mention such a possibility to most Polish citizens including PiS voters, for the benefit of EU membership is clear and unquestionable. With regards to the EU the PiS has been inconclusive in its motivations; it is ready to accept profits of integration while rejecting responsibilities, such as accepting refugees quotas. It is very likely that Poland will maintain membership, but will attempt to further revoke the integration process by rejecting any agreements on crucial issues such as common currency, security etc.
It is difficult to predict whether Poland will inspire other member states to put a similar approach into force. The country certainly has potential to gain an influencer’s position, as it is one of the biggest EU member states with significant institutional and soft power within the EU,especially regarding the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. It even seems that the new government could have an ambition to become a regional leader, but will it possess the necessary skills? Everything will depend on its abilities to build coalitions and at this stage it is difficult to establish if it has the requisite ability for that.
Poland’s possible future
So far the new government has been very focused on internal politics and a dynamic process of power transition has been proclaimed. Some decisions of the government were very controversial, inciting major criticism form the EU and eventually resulting in opening by the European Comission a “preliminary assessment” under the EU’s “rule of law mechanism”.
What will happen after, when the government turns its attention to international politics? A great Poland-Hungary coalition? That is very likely to happen. Nationalistic point of view, commitment to religion and tradition, the same approach to immigration, refugees and criticism of the EU’s powers – those are only few matters that the Prime Minister of Hungary Victor Orban and PiS’s leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski have in common. It is likely that possible cooperation has been discussed during an unofficial meeting, that both politicians had recently in Poland, although there was no official statement regarding it. Any other countries?
If new Polish leaders appear to be skillful in politics, they could inflict damage on the EU, seriously weakening it and even stopping the process of integration. However, if the EU tackles the migration crisis and most countries are able to reunite in the aim of keeping the integration process flowing, Poland will become an outsider just as occurred between 2005 – 2007, the previous time PiS was in power. Together with Hungary, Poland might be left on the margin of integration which would be unfavourable for its citizens. Everything depends on other big EU members; showing a clear sign of their support to the European project would be crucial to weakening anti-EU sentiments, but if they choose national interests over integration then, the EU might find itself in dire straits.