Photo credits: Marek Antoni Iwańczuk
Although relations between Poland and the European Union have never been so tense, the war in Ukraine has clearly changed the atmosphere in the country.
Pupil of Europe
Since Poland joined the European Union in 2004, the country has been a perfect example of how to live up to the Coalition's values. Poland's financial market swelled, pumped with billions of EU funds (not to mention the open transfer of money and workers) and fundamental EU values such as democracy, rule of law and freedom were in the slogans of every major political party. A country originating from the Eastern bloc quickly became an important player in the EU, as evidenced by the appointment of former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk as President of the European Council.
Although Poland was Europe's pupil for over a decade, their relations have deteriorated dramatically over the past few years. This has been blamed on the change in power when the Law and Justice (PiS) party took over in 2015. The government's anti-EU narrative was one of the key elements of a policy strongly focused on traditional values such as nation, family and God. Even the already mentioned freedom, ceased to function as a common narrative element for Poland and Europe. For it was no longer freedom to, but freedom from. The respect for individual independence (so characteristic of the first years of EU membership) and the enthusiasm with which we have opened ourselves up to Western influences, not only economic but also cultural, were quickly replaced by criticism of the "European elites" who supposedly limited our freedom.
A caricatured example of similar resentments is a slogan functioning in the nationalist circles, from which PiS also draws its electorate. The words "Once Moscow, today Brussels," in an obvious reference to the period of Soviet domination in the region, indicate a clear change in public sentiment in Poland. Such a narrative echoes the one we witnessed in the Vote Leave campaign, which pointed out how limiting and restraining it is for Great Britain to remain a member of the EU.
The Civilization of Death
Perhaps the most dangerous chill in relations between Poland and the EU, however, occurred last October when Poland's Supreme Court ruled that the Polish constitution takes precedent over certain EU laws. This provoked not only a clear reaction from member states, but also a wave of protests in Poland, called for by Donald Tusk, among others:
"The operation to lead Poland out of Europe, planned by Jarosław Kaczyński, has started at full speed. If we stay idle, nothing will stop him."
This high-risk gambit undertaken by the Law and Justice party, headed by Kaczyński, has two distinct stakes. First, it is an ideological dispute in which the countries of the European Union are considered a "civilization of death". The social policy of Kaczyński's government, who is considered by many to be a decision-maker in the state, has placed the family at its center. We see this in the new social programs introduced by PiS, as well as in the severe radicalization of abortion laws or the open hatred of the LGBTQ+ community. The increasingly progressive narrative of the European Union is seen as an attempt to impose on Poland a system of values that runs counter to national values.
Secondly, there is the question of how much Law and Justice can do when the EU is watching. Since the party came to power in 2015, there has been an ongoing dispute over the country's adherence to the rule of law. This includes the politicization of the Polish Court of Justice (which, has recently ruled on the supremacy of the constitution over European law), as well as Hungary and Poland's legal challenge to the "money for the rule of law" mechanism.
When there is fear, EU is near
Despite tense relations between the Polish government and the European Parliament, the Polish society continues to support membership of the European Union. Moreover, in a survey published by the Centre for Public Opinion Research, Polish people were the most supportive of the EU of all member states. The publication, conducted at the end of last year, shows that as many as 90 percent of respondents support Poland’s membership in the European Union.
When the war returned to Europe, so did the way we think about international communities. How small did we feel standing next to the Russian Federation, watching it raze more Ukrainian cities to the ground! For who will help us with the biggest migration crisis in the region in decades? Or, considering the darkest scenarios – who will help us when Putin also sees in Poles a nation longing for liberation?
The Polish society voluntarily rushed to help Ukraine. At times, I could not have believed the scale of social mobilization in this nation torn by antagonisms and consumed by polarization only a short while ago. Although Poland has long been the most important migration destination for Ukrainians, such a scale of openness to another nation was deeply surprising to me. As the cultural war gave way to armed conflict, we suddenly became the real representatives of the Union.
Ukraine's aspirations to become a member of the EU are also significant. Seeing the problems Ukrainians face caused by not being the citizens of the European Union, we began to realize the privilege we have been given. Perhaps we have simply become too comfortable in our role as a member state? Only when people who escaped the war and found themselves in our homes asking to enter the EU, have we realized its value. Thanks to it, we can help another nation preserve its identity. As President Vladimir Zalensky said, "We have proved that we are at least as much as you are. Now you prove that you are Europeans."
The new position of Poland in the European Union, which it has gained in the wake of the war in Ukraine, could affect relations in the EU in two ways. Under Joe Biden, Poland has become not only an important ally for the United States, but also a major player in NATO and a significant partner for EU countries. The war in Ukraine has seen an unequivocal, united response from member states that have shown real help to the nation under attack. Poland, which is directly affected by the conflict, can thus also count on the EU’s goodwill.
Will the concessionary tariff in the EU contribute to further abuses of power by the Polish government, which in the present circumstances is able to further violate the principles of the Union? So far, Poland's defiance of the EU has met with a harsh response from the European Parliament. Now, however, the penalization mechanism may be blocked due to the unfolding humanitarian crisis in the country.
I believe that Polexit will not happen in the foreseeable future, but it is not the Polexit we should worry about. The proposal of leaving the EU means political suicide in Poland. However, this does not change the fact that the EU’s watchful eye is bothering the Law and Justice party. Further restrictions on civil liberties and violations of the rule of law are the real danger, for both Polish society and the European Union. Undermining the fundamental principles of the functioning of the Union can destabilize the entire structure of the EU, which is only strong when united.
In this case, the situation in Ukraine is very significant. In the face of war, EU countries were able to unite in an unprecedented way. Such a strong and unambiguous reaction allows us to believe in the future of both the European Union as an institution and Poland as its member state. At least for as long as all of the parties involved are being held accountable.
Zosia Wanat (2021) Polish opposition sounds Polexit alarm and calls for protests, Politico
CBO (2021) Polish people on the dispute with the EU and organisation’s membership (Polacy o sporze z UE i członkostwie w tej organizacji), CBOS.
Volodymyr Zelensky (2022) Speech by the President of Ukraine at European Parliament extraordinary plenary session on Russian aggression against Ukraine https://www.facebook.com/UKRinLatvia/posts/-speech-by-the-president-of-ukraine-volodymyr-zelenskyy-at-european-parliament-e/1800509543481469/
Malwina Talik & Jacek Gil (2021) Polexit: Is Poland on the Way Out of the EU?, Fair Observer.
Stanisława Golinowska (2019) Our Europe: 15 years of Poland in the European Union, CASE