In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) talks about Polish upcoming parliamentary elections, EU funds and the rule of law, and how to deal with populists.
Today, we are going to talk about Poland. Many people have some insight into the situation in Poland, the problems that Poland causes for the European Union, as well as into the developments regarding war refugees from Ukraine and the role this country plays in this respect.
Most of you also know that Law and Justice, a right-wing, nationalist party, is currently in its seventh year of forming a government. The ruling party may be positioned on the right of mainstream EU parties (e.g., CSU in Germany). It wants to be perceived as reasonable conservatives, but considering their views on Europe, the rule of law, and abortion, they subscribe rather to a populist and anti-establishment group – like Marine le Pen’s National Rally in France, Matteo Salvini’s Lega in Italy, or Vox in Spain. There is, however, an important distinction as Law and Justice is strongly anti-Russian and takes a pro-transatlantic stance. This is one of the reasons why the party does not get on well with these parties.
The most similar to Law and Justice is Viktor Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary. Still, we need to remember that Orban follows a different playbook on an international level. He tries to cultivate a special relationship with Russia and China. Meanwhile, Poland needs to maintain close transatlantic relations with the United States – in this regard, the Law and Justice government may be still placed in the Western camp, even though it remains rather Eurosceptic, which causes Poland numerous problems on an international stage.
The year 2023 will be an election year, with the parliamentary election scheduled for late autumn. The opposition to the Law and Justice party constitute good old Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister, and the former Head of the European Council. Since 2005, the Polish political scene has been divided between Donald Tusk (the leader of Civic Platform) and Jaroslaw Kaczynski (the leader of Law and Justice). Five years spent by Tusk in Brussels cost the opposition dearly, with Civic Platform being unable to compete with PiS.
Needless to say, the opposition in Poland constitutes a very fragmented scene. Apart from Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform, other opposition parties include Poland 2050 under the leadership of Szymon Holownia (a political outsider, religious commentator, and a former TV personality). The party is, surprisingly, a liberal movement and it is now a member of the ALDE Group on the EU level. Ideologically, the party is center-right, which makes it similar to Civic Platform (which belongs to the EPP Group).
The left wing in Poland includes the old post-communist party as well as the New Left party under the leadership of MEP Robert Biedron. The coalition consists also of the Together party, a representative of the new left, which (ironically, given its name) stands apart from the other opposition forces.
Then, there is the Polish People’s Party, an agrarian movement with app. 5% of support, which tries to position itself as a centrist party focused not only the countryside, but also on small towns and larger cities. They are, however, having a hard time doing this.
Finally, there is a radical, right-wing nationalist party, Confederation, which is at the moment going through a rebranding process. The party is highly heterogenous – some party members are strongly pro-Russian, others are hardcore nationalists (including white supremacists), while others are conservative libertarians (who are in favor of free market, but at the same time are conservative on social issues). The latter group seems to be the dominant one, and they are in charge of making an attempt to reposition the party on the political scene. The party oscillates around the 5% threshold of voter support, which is a threshold necessary to enter the Polish parliament.
With the upcoming election, the Law and Justice party is facing a series of problems. They are dealing with economic challenges, the backlash after the rule of law violations (with the ECJ trying to force the ruling party to take a step back from the implemented anti-reforms that contributed to rendering the justice system in Poland being dysfunctional), and the introduction of the abortion ban (at the moment, almost all abortions are illegal – a draconian law guided by political reasons).
These issues may cause a headache to anyone who considers any potential reforms after the elections as getting out of this conundrum of unconstitutional changes would be extremely challenging. This seems to be an almost impossible feat if it is to be conducted in a legal manner.
As regards the tensions within the European Union, Law and Justice tries to frame all these problems as ‘the bad EU not willing to give Poland money’ even as Poland is fighting together with Ukrainians their war brought on by Russia, which they deem a ‘disgrace’. Currently, there is also a big anti-German campaign of the ruling party (with Donald Tusk being portrayed as the German puppet), attempting to prove that it is Germany that rules the EU from inside.
Meanwhile, despite the current government, Poland is a strongly pro-European country. The reasons for this attitude may be different, but in general Poles see their future as being a part of the European Union. In light of this fact, one cannot be openly anti-EU and score very highly among voters. This is why PiS is trying replacing ‘the EU’ with ‘Germany’ to mobilize the political support with the anti-German propaganda.
At the same time, the European Commission has very openly stated that unless certain reforms are implemented (including repealing the law banning certain judges from working in courts), then Poland will not receive the EU COVID-19 funds. Moreover, Poland is also facing an even more severe issues related to the structural funds.
The Polish government is clearly facing financial problems tied to high inflation, selling state bonds, and very costly social programs (for instance, extra pensions). It needs money, especially in the election year in 2023. As a consequence, we may see an attempt at adopting a different approach to the Polish relations with the European Union. The strategy of blackmail and pushback is not working in this case – you cannot simply enter a room acting like a rebel rouser and expect everyone to listen to you, just because you happen to have a different opinion on a topic.
Therefore, there is a high likelihood that because of the strong stance on the rule of law in Poland, the European Commission might be able to force the Polish government to withdraw the implemented anti-rule-of-law changes – at least partially. This would be a great victory for everyone in Poland who cares about these issues. For the very first time, the European Union has a (financial) leverage it can actually use.
What is worrying, however, is that, currently, Viktor Orban – who is currently also making some verbal concessions to the EU – will also be the recipient of these funds. This sends an extremely negative signal to the whole community. It is similar to the case if Poland was to receive EU funds without the necessary reforms. Giving the money of European taxpayers to Hungary now would mean supporting a ‘hybrid regime’, to put it nicely, and would only strengthen his position. We need to bear in mind that expecting a change in the Hungarian government and a comeback to liberal democracy seems unreasonable and far-fetched at this point, as this state is no longer a full democracy.
If we allow populists in the European Union to cherry-pick what they like or not, we will face serious problems. This applies also to the countries which at the moment seem to be free from populists, as the temptation to only go for what you find attractive in the European project can be a very strong force. We still remember David Cameron’s failed attempt to have his own way with the EU – with limiting migration and the flow of movement to the UK being his main concerns.
Every member state can easily find something they are not that fond of and would rather get rid of in the EU. But once we start doing this, we may end up wit ha very different European Union from the one we know right now. An EU that would be less integrated, with a more challenging decision-making process, or even with a dismantled Schengen Area or a return of the 2012 Eurozone crisis. This may seem exaggerated, but if other populists in Europe see that it is possible to pick and choose what you want from the European project, then we may see a strengthening of their message, a lot of anti-European campaigning, increase of support for them. By making concessions today, we will observe further weakening of mainstream political parties tomorrow.
Talking about Poland, Hungary, and the rule of law can be tiring. Most Europeans would like to close this topic once and for all and be rid of it. However, we need to remember that Poles are European, so it would be unfair to them to tell them that they do not deserve to have a first-rate rule of law. Poland does deserve it. It might take some time to reinstate it, but it is Poland’s task to change the government and learn the lesson. Even though the society in Poland is as polarized as in the United States, there is no reason to believe that it would not take this lesson seriously.
We should not compromise on our ideals nor undermine the battle that the Polish civil society has been fighting for the past 7 years with our own government against the dismantling of the Constitution and the rule of law in Poland – on the streets, in courts, and in the parliament. This is why I am very happy to see that the European Commission has decided to strengthen its position – or simply to do the right thing.
The Law and Justice government will now find itself in a very precarious position – from this point on, it can either follow a more rational path (take the funds, make the concessions, and bring the rule of law back at least to the extent of the political mainstream in the liberal democratic world order – a move that may cost them their internal coalition with the United Poland party) or stay the course and lose the money (which, in turn, might cost them the election in 2023). So, the choice is ‘really hard’.
As regards the prospects of the Polish opposition, I am very optimistic in regard to a change in power in the 2023 election. What will be problematic, will be the actual ruling, as they will need to face the challenge of pretty much rule against the existing institutions, which were taken over (legally or illegally) by Law and Justice. For instance, you need 60% of votes to reject president’s veto, which makes it very difficult to achieve. Moreover, the economic crisis will be another hard nut to crack with a multi-party government (Poland did not have more than two parties in the government since 2005).
Summarizing, winning the election is one thing, but actual ruling is something else. I do hope that with the help of the civil society, think tanks, and experts our political leaders in the opposition will be ready to take on this extremely important political task of rebuilding Polish democracy after the 2023 election.
The podcast was recorded on November 30, 2022
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.