In October 2015, the Law and Justice Party (PiS), the reference party for Polish conservativism, returned to power obtaining an absolute majority of seats and putting an end to a series of centrist-liberal governments (PO-Civic Platform). As of 2007, this party’s most important representative has been Donald Tusk, former prime minister and current president of the European Council.
Warsaw has been much discussed over the past year and a half. The government led by Beata Szydlo, but as many believe effectively managed by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the PiS, has caused a number of rifts. As far as the economy is concerned, it has promoted “economic patriotism” characterised by significant expenditure on welfare and a rise in taxes on large foreign companies – at times implemented and at others only hypothesized. As far as the refugee crisis is concerned, with votes coming also from members of the previous government, Poland has rejected resettlement policies approved by Brussels. As far as democracy is concerned, the government has approved some greatly opposed reforms, such as those involving state radio and television and the constitutional court. This last reform has been also criticised by the European Commission with which Warsaw is engaged in a serious trial of strength.
However, it is the entire framework of Euro-Polish relations that seem to be shaky. In its attitude to European issues, Kaczynski’s Poland seems almost ill at ease, if not resentful, as seen at recent EU summits. And this is surprising, considering that among the countries that joined Europe in 2004, Poland is perhaps the one that has enjoyed the most benefits from this membership.
We asked the Italian historian and essayist of Polish origin Paolo Morawski, also the author of the book Polonia Mon Amour [with Andrea Morawski, published by Ediesse in 2006] and a member of the magazine Limes’ editorial board, to guide us through this complex issue.
What kind of Europe does Kaczynski want?
In Poland there are at least two different visions of the European set up. One very open perspective is based on the idea that a stable bond with the EU is to the country’s advantage. It is thought that Poland should partly “dilute itself” in Europe, exploiting the advantages with the objective of improving national interests, keeping a low profile within the communitarian establishment, working without excessively raising its voice to obtain even closer links with the Euro-Atlantic club and more structural funds. Kaczynski and the PiS, on the contrary, would prefer a union of countries in which the collective, federative aspect is decidedly inferior to the national dimension. The centrist-liberal vision is linked to foreign countries; Kaczynski and the PiS’ vision is greatly focused on the country, on the subject of sovereignty; he would like a Europe that is firstly one of nations.
Does Poland feel trapped in Europe?
Kaczynski and the PiS express reticence, prudence and suspicion regards to the European Union. This, however, is a sentiment that has deep roots. From the very moment Poland joined the EU, some were already saying that the price to be paid was too high; that some countries would lose too much. The effort made was really enormous; between 1989 and 2004, hence between the end of communism and EU membership, the country had to digest 80,000 pages of rules in order to comply with demands from Brussels.
In Kaczynski’s attitude, and at the basis of his ideas, there is to a certain extent the bête noire of “yesterday Moscow, today Brussels”, as if Poland were now one of the EU’s satellite countries just as it was Moscow’s in the past. This logic does not stand up to scrutiny but it is a tale that certainly exists and periodically re-emerges.
The Law and Justice Party was already in power from 2005 to 2007. Jaroslaw Kaczynski was prime minister for a time, while his twin brother Lech, who died in the 2010 air tragedy in Smolensk, was head of state. At the time the PiS was already expressing mistrust as far as the EU was concerned, but it never reached the levels seen today. What has happened since then?
I would say that nowadays the PiS feels less alone in Europe that it did then; in fact it feels stronger. Now we have Orban in Hungary, Brexit, euro-sceptic, nationalist, identity-based and sovereign forces rising against Brussels as well as all that this embodies; forces that exacerbate centrifugal tendencies within the EU. These are more often than not minority movements, but they are extremely noisy providing the false impression that their discourse is the dominant one. So many managers in Warsaw now believe that they have the wind in their sails and that hence it is time to dig in one’s heels, even if this means going against the current, while waiting for the time to be right. And some are under the illusion that a Le Pen victory in France would be a good moment for Poland.
So Poland is part of the “sovereignist international” ?
Poland takes part in a pendulum movement, in the sense that while earlier there was a period during which what prevailed was the narrative about the benefits of globalisation, nowadays there is anti-globalisation tendency to recoup the regional, local and national dimension. Poland is taking part in this movement. Just as Trump says “America first”, in Poland there are political, social and cultural groups that identify, let us say, with a slogan that could sound like “Poland first”.
In recent years, Germany and Poland forged a solid bond also thanks to the personal relationship between Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk when he was prime minister. Things seem to have changed now. Why is that?
Germany has been Poland’s gateway to the EU since 1989, not only thanks to its geographical position. One should not forget that it is also thanks to support from Berlin (but not from the majority of Germans) that Warsaw has been a member of the European Union since 2004. And Germany is Poland’s top trade partner. It is therefore for a thousand reasons that the Polish managerial class would have every interest in finding common ground; a vision and a strategy shared with German leadership. This also because to the East there is Putin’s Russia, a great power with neo-imperial ambitions that has not totally come to terms with the end of the USSR and its dominion over central-eastern Europe. And yet, although a quarter of a century ago Poland and Germany found the courage to reconcile, to normalise their bilateral relations, to sign the Basic Treaty and to ratify a commonality of values and interests, nowadays a bitter anti-German rhetoric is once again unfortunately being heard in Warsaw. The élites in power in Poland, and the media supporting them, are speaking out against Germany, allegedly excessively dominant and setting the agenda within the EU; against a Germany that is supposedly oppressing smaller European countries; a Germany that does business at a continental level with Russia (and not only in the energy sector); against Angela Merkel who opened the gates to refugees; against Berlin for going against Kaczynski and supporting Tusk as president of the European Council. One should add that simultaneously anti-Polish sentiment is rising in Germany with the reappearance of old stereotypes concerning a xenophobic and dangerously nationalist Poland. The result? Polish and German societies are becoming distant from one another with each losing trust in the other. That is the most worrying trend.
It is above all Polish society that is distancing itself from other European societies.
Yes, above all because it is through anti-Germanism that there is an attempt to create a Polish “imagined community” based on rejection and fear, in the case of ‘others’, because they are German. Another aspect is that in addition to anti-Germanism, there is the juxtaposition of a certain idea of Europe that, right or wrong, assumes Germany embodies it. Thus Europe-Germany or Germany-Europe become a duo to be opposed. Finally there is a third aspect, which is the fact that anti-Germanism and anti-Europeanism are pushing Poland into Russian arms, and this is not the last of many paradoxes.
Since the 16th century, now and again Poland has been, or believes it is, the West’s bastion, outpost, rampart against the barbarianisms coming from Asia. And yet, nowadays there is a strange syntony between the Polish Church and the Russian Orthodox Church in an anti-western key, opposing modernity, secularisation, atheism, materialism, consumerism, the degeneration of customs etc. The narrative outline is a shared one; the East’s spiritual purity against the West’s decadence. This type of mental and value-based convergence between Poland and Russia should be neither over- nor underestimated. It is, however, an element that exists and must be added to other interpretations of today’s Poland. Until recently the West and Europe were a destination that millions of Poles yearned for. Nowadays part of Poland considers that same West/Europe as the kingdom of barbarity, in fact perhaps rather like Sodom and Gomorra.
Translated by Francesca Simmons
First published at ResetDOC.
Paolo Morawski, historian, former Director for Rai (Ufficio studi), publishes in Limes. Rivista italiana di geopolitica and Prometeo. The author of the book Polonia Mon Amour and the co-author, with Jacques Le Goff, of Età medievale (Marietti, 1988).
Matteo Tacconi is an Italian journalist writing on Central Europe and the Balkans.