For years Poland was depicted as a success story in the great transformation of Central and Eastern Europe. A democratic system was built swiftly, with stable institutions. At the international level, Poland aspired to be a bridge between East and West. Economic growth continued despite the financial crisis, resulting in improved social conditions and living standards. However, a deep belief in trickle-down economics never really eliminated social inequalities. The latest developments in Poland, including declining rule of law, are directly attributed by some commentators to that unhealed fracture within the Polish society. But as much as incomplete cohesion is a domestic matter, the ensuing institutional destabilisation and political turmoil have become a European issue: a threat to further integration and democratic standards that demands a strong response. Is the EU capable of one?
Years of latent conflict
Years of liberal governance under the Civic Platform (PO) left many with the impression that Poland is a modern country of Euro-enthusiastic people. The liberal elites enjoyed a long run of luck, to some extent due to horrifying alternative scenarios of a Poland run by volatile right-wing populists. The politics of “warm water in the tap” – stability and predictability – proved convincing. However, unquestionable economic progress also came with market liberalisation: precarious employment conditions, privatisation of social services, ongoing polarisation within society. But exclusion and marginalization were also present during the turbulent period of the 1990s. Shock doctrine unscrupulously introduced in Poland aimed at an immediate and total transformation. Social costs were simply calculated as inevitable, but in the long run manageable by the invisible hand of the market. Little did we know that the effects of that planned injustice will haunt us for decades. There are still regions and professional groups that have never fully enjoyed the progress made and for which any redistribution of wealth was insufficient. Deep cleavages resulted not only in widening social gaps, but also in a petrified culture clash: urban middle-class versus the peripheries. As Karol Modzelewski, renowned historian and dissident once put it: there is an air-tight barrier between these two tribes – the folkish Poland, represented by those pauperised by transformation and left behind in grief, and the enlightened one, applying Western lifestyles and worldviews, looking down on those unmodern and unfit to adapt. These two worlds are not only distant and impenetrable, but apparently irreconcilable.
Democracy is strong as long as the citizens believe in it. In Poland, liberal democracy complemented by laissez-faire left many in doubt and some even in misery. The Law and Justice (PiS) party spoke on their behalf: against neoliberal doctrine, globalisation, deindustrialisation, race to the bottom, additionally seeking refuge from Westernisation in “Polishness” and tradition. In fact, Law and Justice was not the first advocate of a conservative crusade. In 2010, Victor Orban took power in Hungary, becoming an inspiration for the Polish party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. Already in 2011 in a TV interview he blustered that one day soon would come when Warsaw turned into Budapest. A few years later, Kaczyński up-scaled his ambitions, announcing Poland should rather resemble Turkey, which today sounds even gloomier. Nevertheless, in 2015 he defeated the long ruling liberals not by means of violence or fraud but in free democratic elections. Launching an aggressive campaign, based on anti-establishment slogans, economic resentments and reaching out to those left behind, the Law and Justice party hit the bullseye. But the populist tools were used not only to carry out the long announced illiberal counter-revolution, but first and foremost to implement a carefully plotted series of reforms dismantling fundaments of the state in favour of introducing a more authoritarian regime. These interventions are accompanied by long-overdue welfare improvements, like increasing the minimum wage, lowering the retirement age, introducing family allowances. Whilst the opposition tries to mobilise visible resistance and civil disobedience, some people feel really content, and many just don’t really care about abstract ideas. It’s just the latest actions of the government that give rise to doubts about its motivations with serious PR damage.
Signal from Europe
During the last two years of Law and Justice in power, Poland has been many times confronted by the European Union, expressing concern about developments in the country. Changes in the constitutional court, new media law, and finally reshaping the country’s judicial system are, taken together, perceived as a systemic risk to the rule of law and democracy – and may now be vetoed by Andrzej Duda, the Polish president. It is an important issue for the whole European community – only law-abiding states are accepted into the Union and any violations should be immediately countered to ensure that the rule of law is universally honoured. In 2016 the European Commission intervened with recommendations calling on the Polish government to improve its behaviour. The governing party, however, does not seem to take the EC seriously. Their target group is the domestic electorate, not European bodies or international opinion leaders. In the worst-case scenario, the EU can take recourse to Article 7 TEU, which empowers EU institutions to suspend the voting rights of national governments in the Council of Ministers. Frans Timmermans, European Commission Vice President, was very clear in his judgment of the situation. In his opinion, rule of law is under direct threat in Poland and if the dialogue fails to deliver solutions, “any measures […] necessary in this framework” will follow. But exercising sanctions on Poland would truly be water on the mill for PiS demagogy, proving the existence of Brussels dictation and an evil plot against Poland.
With allies like Donald Trump and everlasting sympathy for the Brexit campaign, any corrective measures towards Poland may be counterproductive and result in, maybe even playing, the “Polexit” card – perhaps not meant seriously, but just as political blackmail. Delusional and power-blinded leaders sometimes make catastrophic decisions and at the end of the day its citizens pay the price. There is some hope among that part of Polish society that is critical of the government that the world won’t forget Poland. There are big expectations that Europe “will do something”, that the authorities will find a way to stop Kaczyński, that his accomplices won’t escape justice. There is a belief that the EU will not forget that Poles are also EU citizens and thus it also must stand up for their rights. The question is whether the EU meets that burden of hope and has measures fine enough to solve the situation without violating its own principles. But it would be the best for both the EU and Poland, if the Poles find consensus above divisions and differences on their own, without external interventions.
Update: The European Commission, opening infringement proceedings, gave Poland a month from July 26 to stay its hand on judicial ‘reforms’ (see here)
Maria Skóra is a research associate at the Institut für Europäische Politik and a policy fellow at Das Progressive Zentrum, both think-tanks based in Berlin. She holds a masters in sociology and a PhD in economics.