Are the Poles satisfied with their EU membership?


Piotr Buras

To person

is a political scientist and journalist and head of the Warsaw office of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR). [email protected]

Shortly before Christmas 2017, the EU Commission initiated the procedure against Poland provided for in Article 7 of the EU Treaty. The request of the Union authority to the European Council to determine the serious risk of the violation of fundamental values ​​of the Union in Poland marked the preliminary climax in the almost two-year dispute over the rule of law in Poland, which was caused by unconstitutional acts by the national populist elected in October 2015 Government of the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS) were provoked. These were directed against the independence of the constitutional judiciary, the public media and the judiciary and thus violated the principles of the separation of powers, which are both anchored in the Polish constitution and form the basis of the EU legal system. [1] As early as January 2016, the commission opened the so-called rule of law dialogue with Warsaw and tried in the following months to persuade the PiS government to give in. After these efforts were unsuccessful, the Commission decided to take the first - and unprecedented step in the history of the EU - towards Article 7, which is apostrophized as the "nuclear option" and which can ultimately lead to the country in question being deprived of the right to vote.

The invocation of Article 7 is undoubtedly symbolic and far-reaching. In the constitutional dimension of the conflict, however decisive the departure from liberal-democratic principles may be for Poland, the new course set by Polish European policy and the European discourse in Poland is by no means exhausted. The anti-liberal swing under the PiS, which encountered relatively little resistance in society, [2] is to be interpreted in the broadest sense as a reaction to the post-communist system transformation [3] and thus cannot be separated from a change in attitudes towards Europe. The "Europeanization" was namely the motto and the promise of the Polish way after 1989 - the imitation of the western social and economic model as well as the harmonization of living conditions were the core elements of this strategy. After more than 25 years, it no longer seems to develop the same mobilizing power. And a backlash against the model of the Polish Republic after 1989 necessarily also affects the "European model". The still high level of support for EU membership in society cannot hide this fact. [4] Europe and Europeanization no longer function as self-evident and clearly positive points of reference in the political discourse, but rather they move into the center of the political debate. A "Polexit" is not really up for discussion, but the model and functioning of the European Union as well as the advantages of European integration for Poland are openly questioned and discussed more and more controversially.

The reasons for this change, its political consequences and the resulting perspectives are the subject of this article. I argue that the cut in Polish European policy, which leads to greater skepticism about integration and possibly tougher conflicts of interest with EU partners, will last. On the one hand, this has to do with the character of the new chapter in Polish transformation, in which Europeanization is no longer undisputedly a goal to be striven for. On the other hand, the growing potential for confrontation between Poland and EU partners is due to the current direction of EU integration. Unlike in the past, when Poland was generally satisfied with the integration dynamics and clearly benefited from it, today's developments in Poland are being viewed more and more critically.

Most of the integration projects currently under discussion and changes in the way the EU works are considered problematic for Polish interests. Incidentally, this does not only apply to the ruling party PiS. Whether the further deepening of the monetary union, the changes in the common EU market, the progress in defense cooperation or the further development of the EU asylum policy - in all these areas that are of central importance for the future shape of the EU, Poland seems to have fundamental reservations to have. The perception of the EU as a source of risks - instead of, as before, as a source of opportunities - which is widespread in the PiS discourse [5] will receive additional ammunition and contribute to deepening positions critical of the EU in politics and society.

On the way to de-Europeanization?

There are numerous reasons for the relationship crisis between the PiS government and the EU: the primacy of domestic policy, to which European and foreign policy goals are subordinated, the deliberate instrumentalization of EU criticism and the migration crisis for the purpose of mobilizing right-wing conservative voters Voters as well as the ideological distance to supranational cooperation. The latter is only gaining in importance because the context of Polish EU membership has fundamentally changed since accession in 2004.

Poland joined the EU as a transition country that hoped to gain security, stability, prosperity and financial support from participating in the integration process. The backwardness of the post-communist economic and social model made the West and the EU appear as the only chance for modernization. Europe defined the horizon of Polish ambitions not only in the field of foreign policy, but also in terms of "civilizational" development. Weak Poland became part of the strong West: this image was imprinted on the minds of the elites and the citizens.

In recent years there has been a change of perspective in parts of society: the impression of the EU's strength has suffered massively from its multiple crises. Doubts have also arisen about the superiority of Western Europe as a community of values. The alleged or actual flaws of the West - multiculturalism, secularism, forgetting of values, predatory capitalism and much more - which supposedly endanger its future, [6] caught the eye the more self-confident, crisis-resistant and successful the formerly backward Poland became. The weak Europe with its migrants, the collapsing welfare state and empty churches faced by a proud Poland: This picture may be overdrawn and complacent. However, it reflects the growing self-confidence of the Polish elite and a criticism of the West that was unimaginable a few years ago. This image is deliberately disseminated and instrumentalized with the means of state propaganda. But otherwise the equation "Europe = prosperity and security" no longer works. The Europeanization mantra should therefore be put to the test.

This development is also favored by the fact that the paradigm of Europeanization and Westernization was considered undisputed for many years and was beyond all criticism. In public, the advantages of integration were seen as so obvious that a discussion about possible dark sides, difficult trade-offs or ambivalences of Poland's position in Europe seemed unnecessary. As a result, the high level of support for EU membership was based on general approval of the integration process, but not on an open debate about the direction of integration and sober weighing of Polish interests. Since the myth of Europe began to fade, this positive attitude towards the EU served less and less as a guide for Polish politics.

The disenchantment of Europe is also linked to the crisis of liberalism. The liberal or neoliberal era is drawing to a close, also in Poland. It was not only characterized by a strictly market-based ideology, but it also had strong cultural traits: The questions of identity and anchoring were placed on the back of the apotheosis of the "flat world" [7], and the belief in a progress towards more prosperity that had become without alternative, Openness and networking promoted the idea of ​​the EU as the bearer and promise of a better future. "Today's massive return of Poles to history, patriotism and thinking in national categories is a kind of belated reaction to the modernization trends of the 1990s," wrote a conservative journalist for the daily "Rzeczpospolita" recently. [8] When the certainties of the liberal era are no longer undisputed, the foundations of previous European policy will also crumble. Whether the path of relative de-Europeanization is taken depends not least on how the Polish elites and society assess the prospects for integration in their most important areas.