Over the course of the past two years, onlookers have been confounded at the speed with which Poland, a darling of shock therapy economics and liberal institutionalization, has spiraled towards illiberal democracy. Since the 2015 parliamentary election, the country has made a dramatic political U-turn, which has hurt its diplomatic efforts and eroded goodwill as it now faces the possibility of EU sanctions.
The international press used to extol Poland as a stellar example across the board: a paradigm of democratization; the only European Union member to avoid a recession during the financial crisis; an advocate for Ukraine’s EU ambitions; a diplomatic buffer between the EU and Russia; a testament to the transformative power of EU money. It seemed like this nation from “the Other Europe” had finally arrived on the international stage.
The past two years have shown just how quickly perceptions change. The Poland of today seems increasingly like an ideologically feudal outpost, its politics once again ridden with the legacy of communism, conspiracy theories, and exclusionary discourse towards opponents. Since Poland’s conservative Law and Justice Party (PiS) swept the Sejm (Polish Parliament) in 2015, the country’s international reputation has been characterized by a slew of highly publicized and controversial decisions.
In January 2018, widespread international outrage erupted over legislation denouncing any suggestion that there was Polish complicity in the Holocaust. Last summer, PiS had enraged environmentalists and Eurocrats when it began a nonsensical logging campaign in the protected Białowieża Puszcza, the last remaining primeval forest on the European continent. The party also refused to support Donald Tusk’s (a former president from the opposition party) bid for his second term as President of the European Council. Brussels was left dumbfounded by this self-sabotage. Last spring, PiS inspired widespread revolt with its introduction of a draconian abortion bill that spurred Polish women to launch a “black protest” and organize a nationwide strike (the bill did not pass). Polish public media has also transformed into a government propaganda machine. And, at the very start of its tenure in government, PiS began an overhaul of the Constitutional Tribunal (CT), passing seven amendments on the functioning of the tribunal, including changes to its composition and procedures. When the CT ruled these changes unconstitutional, PiS blocked the rulings from being published, therefore preventing them from coming into effect. The government’s actions are negating the CT’s role as a capable oversight body and raising red flags from democracy watchdogs.
From an outsider’s view, it would appear that the current government keeps digging itself deeper, allowing for little goodwill. And it needs some goodwill. Poland’s ability to conduct effective foreign policy is tied inevitably to its standing in the EU, and EU-Polish relations are at an all-time low. The Holocaust bill has caused a rift with Israel and other key allies (including the U.S.). If the high point of the last two years of diplomacy was securing a visit from President Trump last summer, the very theatrics of that visit only served as further embarrassment and gained little clout with Brussels. So why does this government continue down this slippery slope? Because the mantra of Jarosław Kaczyński, the de facto godfather of PiS is: Poland first, EU second.
This approach is simple, but effective (and familiar, no?). When the EU says member states need to accept migrants, Poland responds, “we must protect our culture and people first.” When Israel is infuriated by legislation that aims to distort history, Poland claims, “we were victims, too.” When Europe is aghast at draconian views of women’s reproductive and LGBTQ rights, Poland purports, “we protect Christian values.” This mentality is in every PiS sound bite. And it has been for the past several years. PiS is placing its bets, and currently, it’s betting on what international media might deem as “bad PR.” But these actions might actually be quite effective in winning elections domestically. When the next election cycle comes around, the evidence of a “Poland First” approach will be readily available.
Tapping into the “Real” Poland
PiS is banking on political gain from rubbing salt into old wounds. Because the events which have shaped Polish memory and identity are overwhelmingly based on trauma and loss. PiS is able to tap into strong emotions for political gain with great success. For example, with the approval of the Holocaust bill, the domestic debate over Polish historical memory will serve to question the patriotism and loyalty of critics. Furthermore, the outcry from Brussels (over this and other legislation) only serves as further proof that the EU does not understand the country’s history or respect its sovereignty. As historian Timothy Garton Ash points out, PiS came to power on the shoulders of “Poland B:” the Poles in small towns and poorer regions who felt “alienated by social liberalism, on issues such as abortion, gender, and sexual orientation, which came with the opening to Western Europe.” To PiS and its supporters, Poland is the last bastion of Christianity in Europe, rebelling heroically against the “immorality” of its Western neighbors.
Little over a decade after Poland’s accession to EU membership, PiS achieved electoral victory in part because it questioned if Poland had acquiesced too much to EU demands in its over-eagerness to achieve Westernization. When examining motivations for voting for PiS in the 2015 elections, a CBOS (Polish Public Opinion) poll found that over 30 percent of voters were swayed by the perception that PiS had Poland’s true interests at heart. A March 2018 CBOS poll showed that PiS enjoys the support of 41% of the population, while support for its rival Civic Platform (PO) has dropped to 14%. If parliamentary elections were held today, PiS would win 39.4% of the vote (significantly more than its closest rival, Civic Platform). Though the past two years may have been pockmarked with boisterous protests, these were mainly confined to left-leaning metropolitan areas like Warsaw. Despite its bad reputation abroad, PiS’ portrayal of the EU as no longer aligned with Poland’s culture needs has helped it maintain a strong mandate at home.
An Uncertain Path Forward
How times have changed. Just 25 years ago, EU membership was the main goal of Central European governments after the fall of the Iron Curtain. This goal could only be achieved by a wholehearted dedication to abiding with the democratic principles outlined. At the time, the incentive of EU membership superseded nationalist political agendas. Though Czech President Vaclav Havel may have hailed the former Soviet satellite states’ post-communist transition as a “return to Europe” in the 1990s, it seems that modern Central European governments are now reevaluating the implications of that historic homecoming.
Central Europeans had hoped that EU membership would be their ticket to a rapid increase in economic status. Years later, not everyone has reaped these benefits as economic crises, massive emigration, and unequitable distribution of wealth created socioeconomic problems most political parties were slow to acknowledge. EU integration was supposed to level the playing field—instead, it seems to have exposed the fissures hiding behind its shiny façade.
In recent months, PiS has amplified its campaign to vindicate its policies in Brussels; Mateusz Morawiecki, the new prime minister, recently presented the European Commission with a white paper aiming to convince Eurocrats that his government’s reforms will actually increase the independence of the judiciary. When Brussels rejected this defense, Poland’s foreign minister, Jacek Czaputowicz, was quick to accuse the EU of a “double standard” in its treatment of member states, emphasizing the discord between East and West. The efficacy of such moves is inconsequential. PiS may try to play nice to improve relations on the surface, but it’s in no rush to offer concessions.
Poland’s deteriorating international position results mainly from the escalating conflict with Brussels and the weakening credibility of the government outside the country. Even if there are no EU sanctions against Poland in the end, the drawn out debate and process will significantly reduce Poland’s influence in the EU, which it ultimately wants to wield on its own terms. This diplomatic loss has yet to be counterbalanced by revivals in other channels. The Visegrad four, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia, are not more unified than before, and while Poland’s relationship with the U.S. putters on, it is inevitably tied to the whims of an unpredictable Trump administration.
A year ago, it seemed improbable that the EU would launch Article 7 proceedings against Poland. At present, it still seems unlikely that there would be a unanimous vote to invoke sanctions, though enough pressure from Germany and France could theoretically make it happen (Hungary has vowed to support Poland in this cause). With the EU now threatening to dole out structural funds only to members who abide by the rule of law, Poland finds itself in an unprecedented scenario. If Article 7 is ever invoked, Poland could face serious financial penalties, withholding of EU funds, and a ripple effect in its economic stability. Kaczyński’s approach to EU membership has always been skeptical at best; a steady flow of EU funds has always been the main perk of membership. Should those be cut off, the EU bargain loses its appeal both for the PiS and the people that put them in power. Poland’s inability to fill its coffers with EU money, combined with potential penalties for breaking EU regulations, could instigate a surge of “Polexit” support. For the already Eurosceptic PiS, this would be politically advantageous.
With the EU embroiled in multiple crises, and with Hungary vowing to veto any EU sanctions against Poland, the government is unlikely to back down even with the looming threat of Article 7. With PiS in power, Poland will continue down the illiberal path that Hungary has been clearing for almost a decade, leaving it up to Brussels to make the concessions.