The European Union has just had a taste of Polish politics. The country’s internal political divisions burst onto the European scene, when the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) attempted to block the re-election of its compatriot Donald Tusk as President of the European Council. The Polish government not only failed in this endeavour, but failed to win the support of any other country, including its supposed conservative ally, Hungary. Alone and frustrated, the Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, engaged in a war of words with other European leaders before refusing to sign any of the summit’s documents. As one of the largest beneficiaries of EU funds and open borders, what is the Polish government playing at and what does it hope to gain?
For seasoned observers of Polish politics, the actions of Szydło at the European Council were nothing new. Under the leadership of Jarosław Kaczyński, PiS has adopted a political style of augmenting conflicts and widening divisions. This strategy has served them well, overtaking Citizens’ Platform (PO – formerly led by Tusk) in 2015 to become the only party in modern Polish history to win an overall parliamentary majority. Its candidate Andrzej Duda also won the presidential elections that year. PiS has a zero sum strategy, seeing itself as the sole defender of Polish interests and painting its opponents as acting in the interests of foreign governments, corrupt elites or hidden Communist agents.
During its current term in office, PiS has consistently come into conflict with Brussels, which has accused it of breaking democratic standards. Facing such criticism, it often promotes its self-crafted image as the defender of the nation, at times exploiting historical resentments towards Germany. Tusk’s re-election was a case of domestic and European politics coming together to create the perfect diplomatic storm.
Both Tusk and Kaczyński were relatively marginal figures in the country’s opposition movement during Communism. They served in the country’s right-wing coalition government during the late 1990s and before the 2005 elections it was widely believed that their parties (PO and PiS) would form a coalition government. However, with the collapse of the left vote, these two parties have come to dominate Polish politics and relations between them have become ever more hostile and personal. Sections of the right-wing conservative media and politicians have long denigrated Tusk as being connected to Germany, even insinuating that his grandfather voluntarily served in the Wehrmacht during the Second World War. These tensions reached new levels after the Smoleńsk tragedy in 2010, in which President Lech Kaczyński (Jarosław’s twin brother) was a victim. The leadership of PiS question the official version of events that led to the crash and a large majority of its electorate believe that it was the result of a deliberate attack. Furthermore, Jarosław has claimed that “Donald Tusk belongs to those politicians who are morally responsible for the Smoleńsk catastrophe and should disappear from the political scene.”
The recent summit skirmishes can be seen as part of this ongoing rivalry between PiS/PO and Kaczyński/Tusk. PiS remains ahead in the opinion polls and since the 2015 elections PO has struggled to rebuild itself as a credible opposition. However, in recent weeks it has regained its standing as the main opposition party. Tusk remains one of the country’s most effective politicians and even from afar he exerts some influence on Polish politics. Rumours continue to circulate that he may return to Poland before the next presidential or parliamentary elections and lead the opposition against PiS. The recent actions by PiS seem to have backfired, boosting Tusk’s reputation at home and making him a greater political threat than he had been before.
The actions of PiS also reflect wider uncertainties facing the EU in the wake of the Brexit referendum vote. With Britain heading towards the exit door, Poland is losing one of its closest allies and finds itself more isolated than ever. This is partly self-imposed, due to the government’s authoritarian actions at home and refusal to cooperate with other EU states in dealing with such issues as accepting refugees and fighting climate change. However, any Polish government would have to face the prospect of the country being pushed further to the peripheries of a changing Europe.
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Since the global financial crisis broke the temporary unity between the surplus and deficit states in the Eurozone, the future of the EU in its present guise has been thrown into doubt. Poland was the only country in the EU to avoid an economic recession, as it managed to significantly raise its rate of public investment owing to the large inflow of EU funds. Also, as it was not tied to the Euro, the Polish Złoty depreciated, raising the competitiveness of its exports. The latest proposal to create a multi-speed EU may close off this previous course of economic development and reduce the room for any progressive pro-European alternative gaining ground in Poland.
At the European Council, Francois Hollande responded to Szydło by saying that ‘you have your rules, we have our structural funds’. Poland has been the largest recipient of funds from the past two EU budgets; and is due to receive €100bn under the current budget that runs to 2020. However, if Britain leaves the EU then the pot will be reduced, which could see a smaller share going to Poland. Also, it is almost certain that Poland will receive considerably fewer funds from the budget beginning in 2021 and may even become a net-payer.
It remains unclear what impact the creation of a ‘multi-speed’ EU would have on the distribution of funds and where it would leave those economies that are not part of the leading group. It can be assumed that those wishing to enter this elite club will have to first adopt the Euro. This therefore places new pressures on countries like Poland, with the currency question already returning to the centre of political debate.
Although Polish society remains staunchly pro-EU, public support for the Euro has dropped dramatically in recent years, however, with around 70% opposing its adoption. The crisis in Eurozone economies overturned the view that the Euro would help to guarantee economic and financial stability. The government would be compelled to introduce a new wave of austerity policies to meet the membership criteria.
Poland may be faced with the choice of becoming a second-class EU member or having to endure a painful process of adjustment to gain at least a voice at the table of the elite’s new club. PiS may well be gambling that they will be able to capitalise on this new political dichotomy. It has recently introduced some pro-social reforms, such as providing new child benefits for all families with more than one child. This is the first significant act of social redistribution in over 20 years and it has helped PiS to cement its support. If the pro-European alternative were to be that of adopting the Euro in conditions of reduced structural funds and more austerity, then this will simply play into the hands of PiS. They will then be able to further promote themselves as being both the patriotic party and the people that can be best trusted to protect living standards.
No serious politician in Poland advocates the country leaving the EU. However, the EU risks marginalising the pro-European political forces in the country, unless it offers the prospect of a progressive alternative to conservative nationalism. This would entail the EU rejuvenating the project of creating a social Europe through significantly expanding its budget, instigating a programme of pan-European investment and seeking further economic and social convergence. The option of a multi-speed EU will only increase divisions and inequalities and help to build the support of conservative nationalists in Poland and beyond.
Gavin Rae is a sociologist in Warsaw. He has written extensively on the political and social changes in Poland and central and eastern Europe, including Poland's Return to Capitalism: From the Socialist Bloc to the European Union and Public Capital: The Commodification of Poland's Welfare State.