27th Jan 2021


Playing with fire - Poland's PiS reach for the 'Polexit' matches

  • Jaroslaw Kaczynski's ability to lead the Law and Justice party is now being questioned (Photo:

"This Is The Greatest Battle We Have To Win", "Veto or Death", "Poland and Hungary Defend Europe Against German Lawlessness And Hegemony".

These are just some of the headlines in the past few days in Polish media, reflecting the governing coalition's claims in its conflict with Brussels over the rule-of-law conditionality mechanism linking EU budget and coronavirus recovery fund.

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  • The conservative weekly Do Rzeczy's front-page "Polexit: We Have The Right To Talk About It" cover. Their editorial stated: 'Leaving EU is the only response to EU arrogant attempts to inflict LGBTQ ideology on us...' (Photo: Paulina Pacula)

The issue has been presented as a "threat to Poland's sovereignty and cultural distinctiveness" - while right-wing politicians have been playing hard on anti-German and homophobic sentiments, sparking a 'Polexit' (a Polish exit from the EU) debate in the country.

But according to professor Radoslaw Markowski, political scientist at the SWPS university in Warsaw, the row should rather be seen as a way of reclaiming the public agenda, after months of dwindling polls for the ruling Law and Justice (Pis) party, due to the Covid-19 pandemic and women's strikes, rather than as a step in Poland's way out of EU.

"There is no approval for leaving the EU among Polish society", Markowski told EUobserver.

On 22 November, the conservative weekly Do Rzeczy published a front-page article: "Polexit: We Have The Right To Talk About It".

Their editorial stated: "Leaving EU is the only response to EU arrogant attempts to inflict LGBTQ ideology on us […] and to an arbitrary extension of EC competencies."

The cover was a direct reference to Ursula von der Leyen's declaration of a stronger protection of the rights of women and LGBTIQ people in Europe.

This, combined with the idea of linking EU funds to respecting the rule of law, has infuriated Polish conservatives. Many see the move as a way to force member states to adopt liberal policies in social areas.

According to opinion polls, 81 percent of PiS supporters do not approve any form of formalised relationships between same-sex couples (CBOS, 2019).

This attitude is also strong among voters for the right-wing catholic Polish Coalition party and radical ex-libertarian Konfederacja party (at 51 percent and 70 percent, respectively).

They see Poland's 'cultural distinctiveness' as its traditional catholic values, national and racial homogeneity and picky approach to human rights.

"Poland's right-wing euroscepticism is mostly based on anti-German sentiments, post-colonial references and rejection of the concept of human rights stemming from Poland's Catholic Church teachings", Markowski told this website.

"It is illiberal, anti-democratic and fuelled by historical resentments", he added.

PiS has been building on those sentiments for years: it was by stoking fears of migrants and the party's opposition to the EU's initial migrant quotas in 2015 that helped PiS into power in the first place.

And now the Law and Justice party is not only struggling with falling support, but also tensions among its coalition partners.

That may be one reason why its politicians are reaching for something that has been proven to work in the past: harsh, anti-EU rhetoric, depicting themselves as 'raising from ones knees' in opposition to 'German hegemony'.

The coalition has dropped 13 percent in support since March 2020, dropping to 31.3 percent by November (an average across different polls). That is its lowest level since 2015.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski's ability to lead the party is now being questioned.

The power tussle is enlivened by the political ambitions of Zbigniew Ziobro, Poland's justice minister, chief prosecutor and the leader of radical-right coalition party Solidarna Polska (United Poland).

Ziobro has come into open conflict with Kaczynski on a number of occasions, suggesting his loyalty lies with himself – a sin Kaczynski doesn't forget.

Currently, both coalition parties – Ziobro's Solidarna Polska and centre-right Porozumienie, led by Jaroslaw Gowin, are checking their potential options for other political arrangements.

During the debate on the EU veto, Gowin argued that a "veto is like an atomic bomb - the explosion will also seriously hurt Poland" while Ziobro pressurised prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki to abstain it as it was "the only move in line with Poland's national interest".

PiS vs Polish citizens on EU

Playing on euroscepticism has proven effective numerous times so far - but PiS is well aware that this strategy has its limits: Poles themselves are still very pro-EU.

The latest opinion poll leaves no doubt: according to IBRIS, if there was a referendum regarding a possible 'Polexit', 81.1 percent of citizens would vote to stay, 11 percent would vote to leave, with 7.9 percent undecided.

Interestingly, approval for Poland's EU membership is very high among PiS voters – 83 percent. For Civic Coalition it is 95 percent and for Lewica 97 percent.

The biggest percentage of eurosceptics are among Koalicja Polska voters (33 percent) and Konfederacja (63 percent).

That's why Morawiecki frequently highlights in his speeches that "We say 'yes' to the EU, but 'no' to arbitrary criteria to rule-of-law evaluation."

However, there is a risk that playing with the flame of euroscepticism, especially in the way PiS does, is dangerous – turning what should be a reasonable debate on EU-Polish relations into a shallow anti-European narrative built on 'Us vs Them' and fostering a deep distrust.

"It's like playing with the matches. Even Brexit campaigners were pretty surprised with their eventual success", professor Markowski warned.

Author bio

Paulina Pacula is a freelance journalist in Poland.


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