Can you have your cake and eat it too? The story of Polish populist Euroscepticism

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by Natasza Styczyńska, Assistant Professor at the Institute of European Studies, Jagiellonian University

In recent monthsan ongoing conflict between the Polish government and the European Commission has often been in the news. According to the opposition, this could lead directly to a so-called ‘Polexit’. The European Union’s institutions are often criticised by the ruling Law-and-Justice led coalition and accused of domination and excessive influence on the internal issues of the member states. On the other hand, according to the opinion polls, 90 percent of Poles are positive about EU membership, which makes Poland one of the most pro-European societies in the entire EU. Moreover, according to Eurobarometer Poles tend to trust the European institutions more than the national ones. Poland is therefore an interesting example of a country in which a Eurosceptic government was elected by citizens who on the whole declare their commitment to EU membership. The country serves also as a case study of how populism can be merged with Euroscepticism, which can be observed particularly on the right side of the Polish political spectrum.

PiS support in 2019 Polish parliamentary election

The Polish political arena is dominated by right wing parties

The situation in Poland is complex; while most parties claim to support European integration in principle, many employ some form of populist discourse concerning the EU. The governing United Right coalition has been in power since 2015; internally, it is not ideologically coherent. The illiberal Law and Justice party of Jarosław Kaczyński is the main coalition partner, while the right-wing Eurosceptic party Solidary Poland of Zbigniew Ziobro is a junior partner. After the departure of Jarosław Gowin and his Agreement party from the coalition earlier this year, the United Right depends on the support of Kukiz’15 and some independent MPs. The opposition is represented by the liberal Civic Coalition (led by Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform) and the Left – both are predominantly pro-European. The exceptions here are the Confederation Party, which is openly anti-European, and the already-mentioned, populist Kukiz’15 party which argues that there is a lack of democracy in the EU.

Populists tend to use Euroscepticism to explain both internal and external issues

Although populism and Euroscepticism often go together in politics, the two concepts do not mean the same thing – they are considered to be ‘distinct but intersecting phenomena’. Populism in its essence utilises the antagonism between ‘the people’ and ‘the elite’. Thus, in populist discourses European institutions or certain member states (for example Germany) are regularly represented as distant,  ‘elitist’ and dominating over member states such as Poland. When in October of this year the European Commission threatened Poland with sanctions after the Constitutional Court ruled that key elements of EU law were incompatible with the Polish constitution, the United Right governing coalition’s reaction was to accuse the EU of being a ‘bureaucratic dictatorship’ which restricts Poland’s freedom and development. In a similar vein, a few weeks later Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, in an interview for the Financial Times, accused the EU of  a ‘discriminatory and diktat type of approach’. He also announced that if the European Commission ‘starts the third world war’ by withholding promised financial transfers, Poland would have to defend its rights with ‘any weapons which are at [its] (…) disposal’. Such populist discursive constructions are used by the Polish government for several reasons. First, to consolidate its electorate by presenting the EU as an external threat and using ‘us’ vs ‘them’ rhetoric, which presents the ruling parties as the only defenders of the Polish state and its interests. Second, to legitimise opposition to deeper European integration, which is also voiced at the European level by the European Conservatives and Reformists group to which Law and Justice belongs. Also, the support for a drastic reform of the European Union plays an important role in the political programme of the ruling coalition. In the summer of this year, Law and Justice signed (along with other radical right-wing parties) the joint declaration on the future of Europe. The signatories (including France’s Rassemblement National, Hungary’s Fidesz, and Italy’s Lega) call for reform, pointing out the alleged domination of the strongest member states and the supposedly dangerous tendency of EU institutions to ‘impose an ideological monopoly’. The group met in December during the Warsaw summit, at which they declared that they would act together in order to ‘put a stop to the disturbing idea of creating a Europe governed by a self-appointed elite’ and to the ‘social engineering aiming at creating a new ‘European nation’.

Poland can serve as an example of not only illiberal populism but also shallow pro-Europeanness

While, according to Mudde and Kaltwasser, ‘populism always involves a critique of the establishment and adulation of the common people’ it is interesting to note how these categories are defined. In the case of Poland, right-wing populism is often combined with Euroscepticism, meaning that the populist world view is applied to the European level. It indicates that ‘the elite’ is embodied by large and old member states (such as Germany) or European institutions (‘Brussels’, Commission, Parliament, Court of Justice) but also political opponents within Poland (liberals and leftist parties). Interestingly, the reference to ‘the people’ implies ‘the Polish people’ or ‘Poland’ (the entire country), rarely to some other member states (if at all, then mostly from post-communist Central and Eastern Europe), and seldom to the ‘European people’. This demonstrates how European identity and a feeling of belonging to the EU are weakly rooted in the popular perception. It may also explain the shallow and utilitarian pro-Europeanness of the Polish people, and the reasons why Eurosceptic rhetoric finds fertile ground in the country. Despite the declared strong popular support for the EU membership, populist Eurosceptic rhetoric is used by different parties and seems to appeal to a wide right-wing electorate. One of the reasons for that may be the fact that the EU is perceived in very utilitarian terms – mainly as a donor, security guarantor and source of individual profits, based mostly on the freedom of movement of people. For a large part of Polish society, the EU, even if appreciated, is perceived rather as an external entity than the community to which they belong. This trend may explain why the ruling coalition is advocating for more national sovereignty, a stronger role of the national parliaments and a promise to keep Poland within the EU while calling Polexit ‘fake news’. The ruling parties try at the same time to satisfy the pro-EU electorate and remain appealing to the more nationalistic voters. Such rhetoric and activities of the Polish government allow support to be gained at the national level mainly due to the argument about the defence of the ‘national interest’, which is allegedly under threat from the ‘Brussels elite’ or EU institutions. At the international level, however, such rhetoric and actions result in Poland being perceived as ‘the biggest rebel’ within the EU, even though the Eurosceptic policy of the Law-and-Justice-led government continues to meet with protests from a large part of the population.

Inactivity of the EU towards illiberal governments may bring serious consequences for the future

It seems, six years after Law and Justice got in power, that Poland can serve as an example of not only populist Euroscepticism, but of an illiberal democracy which, according to Havlík and Hloušek, is characterised by ‘rejecting liberalism as a social system, neoliberalism as an economic one, and Europeanism and globalisation as enemies of the moral rebirth of the Polish nation’. This raises the question of whether, in the long term, the ruling coalition’s anti-European actions will be able to generate impactful public opposition leading to a change of power, or whether European issues will be overshadowed by other issues exposed by the ruling coalition (such as the COVID-19 pandemic, or the crisis on the Polish-Belarusian border).The growing populist Euroscepticism in Poland is a dangerous phenomenon not only for Poland itself but also for the European community as a whole. The European Union must respond to the actions of the Polish authorities. Acting harshly may have serious consequences for the Polish membership, but being inactive provides legitimacy not only to populist Eurosceptics in Poland but also around the member states. Turning a blind eye to those who undermine the value of the European project may generate far-reaching repercussions for its future.

Dr Natasza Styczyńska is Assistant Professor at the Institute of European Studies of the Jagiellonian University. Currently, she is a researcher in two H2020 projects: Populist rebellion against modernity in 21st-century Eastern Europe: neo-traditionalism and neo-feudalism (POPREBEL) and EU Differentiation, Dominance and Democracy (EU3D). Her academic interests include transformation processes in Central and Eastern Europe, party politics, nationalism, populism and Euroscepticism in the CEE region and the Balkans.