On January 13, 2016, in an unprecedented move, Frans Timmermans, the first vice president of the European Commission, announced the commission would start a process aimed at protecting Poland from internal threats to its rule of law.
Poland, the good kid of Europe, suddenly found itself out of favor. “How did this happen?” was the question heard following recent controversial actions by Law and Justice, Poland’s new conservative government. How was it possible that a long period of cooperation between Warsaw and Brussels had hit a crisis point?
There are several reasons. First, the post-Communist myths of the West are in decline in Central Europe, a phenomenon being used by Poland’s new ruling elite. Second, the success achieved by today’s conservatives is a consequence of a series of political mistakes made by the previous, more liberal government. Above all, Law and Justice’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, has decided to make political use of the negative attitudes toward the West festering among certain groups of Poles.
Since the collapse of Communism in 1989, an almost absolutely uncritical attitude toward Western Europe and the United States had dominated Central and Eastern Europe. This was partly due to people trying to extract themselves from impoverishment with Western tools of economic transformation. And yet, Europeans emerging from behind the Iron Curtain were not motivated by simple material aims. Quite the opposite: following the fall of Communism, Western states also represented a better world in a moral sense.
The post-Communist, post-1989 myth of the West moved Poles to introduce wide-reaching economic, legal, and social reforms. That narrative managed to unite the majority of Poles, for whom the deciding experience of their recent past was poverty, misery, and a lack of any sort of freedom.
But it has all seemingly gone sour. The European Commission’s decision to introduce measures to secure Poland’s rule of law, in spite of Polish politicians making statements intended to calm the situation, represents a definite worsening of relations with the EU. For a certain group of Poles, the process of perceiving the West through rose-tinted spectacles has come to an end.
What’s more, a change of generations has taken place. Younger Poles—the first generation to travel freely around the world without hang-ups or the need to compare themselves to their peers in Berlin or Paris—have a very different attitude to Europe from their parents or grandparents. Being shamed by Poland’s Western neighbors is no longer an option: Poles today consider themselves to be as much a part of Western Europe as anyone else.
While it may be true that most Poles are happy for their country to remain a member of the EU, their unquestioned enthusiasm for it has waned. The majority of adult Poles are against joining the euro: in 2014, the figure was close to 70 percent.
And today’s attitudes to the problem of refugees show that there are a number of issues on which most Poles are not willing to follow the EU’s lead. According to research, it is the youngest Poles who are against accepting quotas of refugees fleeing territories ravaged by armed conflicts.
The euro crisis experienced by countries such as Greece and Spain, which until recently represented the peaks of Polish aspirations, has been another wake-up call. The wave of Euroskepticism growing in Western Europe is also forcing people to ask questions about notions of sovereignty for members of the EU.
These trends might not have been so profound had the center-right Civic Platform not so resoundingly lost the 2015 presidential and parliamentary elections.
Many commentators in the West stressed that Poland’s earlier success had been down to the role played by Donald Tusk. And yet this progress was a mixed blessing. Tusk was not only prime minister but also the charismatic leader of Civic Platform, the party he essentially created. On his departure to Brussels to become president of the European Council, he as good as left his party without anyone at the helm. Ewa Kopacz, his replacement as prime minister, failed to convince Poles to vote for her in the 2015 elections, nor did she secure the support of her own ranks.
Furthermore, an older generation of pro-European politicians is leaving the scene, and the new center-right Modern party and the internally squabbling Left have been unable to interrupt Law and Justice’s rise to power.
As a result, Kaczyński has become the only charismatic politician left on the stage and one who has proved flexible enough to hand over the party’s election campaigns to a younger generation of activists.
Kaczyński’s commanding victory has meant that he has been left free to put into action all of his old, radical visions, but in a new context. In the domestic sense, this means a radical program of changing the elites who rule modern Poland. Dismantling the civil service and restructuring the state-owned media were attempts to cleanse the country of its remaining post-Communist elements.
Such policies have led Kaczyński to demand that Poland take up a more dominant position within the EU. He has said that he expects Poland to become one of the most powerful players in the EU and in NATO.
Unlike, for example, Marine Le Pen, the leader of France’s far-right National Front, Kaczyński has never suggested that Poland leave the EU, but rather that it should strengthen its position in it. He will be further assured in this thinking by the stance taken by other EU members—such as the UK, which is becoming very vocal in demanding that its interests be taken seriously.
In addition, the imaginations of politicians calling for a greater influence of individual Central European states have been stirred up by the policies of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. Hungary’s attitude toward the EU has been perceived as an unrivaled success in terms of new statism—the conservative ideal of rebuilding individual countries after the fall of Communism.
New statism has set Poland against its Western neighbors. As absurd as it sounds, proponents of Law and Justice policies can be heard saying that the old rule of following Moscow’s lead has now been replaced by a blind following of Brussels. This emotional attitude toward international relations is the core of the party’s political agenda. It is also the basis for Poland’s currently awkward foreign relations.
After several years in opposition, the ranks of Law and Justice have proved both ambitious and clumsy in pushing through changes. The party believes that the EU is now weakened and torn by internal strife, but that it is still possible to extract certain benefits from belonging to it—on the condition that Poland remains resolutely vocal about its demands.
It is no accident that the media in Poland recently focused not so much on British Prime Minister David Cameron’s December 2015 visit to Warsaw but on the discreet meeting in January 2016 between Kaczyński and Orbán in a small town in southern Poland. The exchange of experiences between Poland and Hungary in terms of introducing radical changes to the state and standing up for national interests in Europe (without losing EU funding) forms the key to understanding future developments in Central Europe. The example set by Hungary and Poland will not go unnoticed by other countries in the region.
The end of the myth of the West means that verbal warnings from politicians such as Timmermans will unfortunately not result in any meaningful change of attitudes. The only difference to Central European policies can be effected by EU institutions taking a firm stance—toward not just Poland but also Hungary.
Poland’s priority must now become the rebuilding of an effective political opposition, as well as providing that opposition with a long-term set of strategies. Law and Justice has only just come to power. Having made initial mistakes, it will undoubtedly learn quickly how to play a more effective game with the EU, in the style of Orbán.
Jarosław Kuisz, a legal historian and political analyst, is editor in chief of the Polish online weekly newspaper Kultura Liberalna. He is a visiting scholar at the University of Oxford and a researcher at the Institut d’histoire du temps présent in Paris. This contribution was translated by Marek Kazmierski.