Wednesday

16th Jan 2019

Interview

Poland's liberal prodigy to take on EU populists

  • Robert Biedron aims to bring a liberal, pro-EU message to Poland's "election marathon" (Photo: Agnieszka Lozinska)

Polish populists and those further afield in Europe have a new adversary - Robert Biedron, a local politician whose pro-EU party aims to "change the face of Poland".

The 42-year old former mayor of Slupsk, in northern Poland, told EUobserver his "progressive" party would contest the European Parliament (EP) elections in May, as well as Poland's upcoming parliament and presidential votes.

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"We should use the opportunity of these next six-to-seven months to the European Parliament elections to support all pro-democratic forces in Europe, so that we stop populists from entering European Union institutions," he told this website.

Openly gay and atheist, Biedron could hardly be more different from the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party that currently rules Poland and that has steered Warsaw into multiple clashes with the EU mainstream.

But his deputy held the seat in Slupsk with 34 percent of the vote in last weekend's regional elections - a result which Biedron saw as a reward for of his own earlier work in the city.

Biedron now hopes to capitalise on that success in a campaign to "regain people's trust" in politics - an idea that echoes France's equally youthful and pro-European president, Emmanuel Macron.

When he started out in politics, everybody, from the media to fellow politicians, told Biedron that he had no chance due to Poland's conservative and Roman Catholic mores, but he became the country's first openly gay MP in 2011 and he is now one of its most trusted politicians.

"Because people are not stupid," he replied, when EUobserver asked the reason for his electoral success.

"Reality is not back and white. When people see someone who is accountable, whose values they share, they trust you and vote for you," he said.

The son of a former activist in Poland's anti-communist Solidarnosc movement, Biedron also founded one of the biggest NGOs fighting homophobia in Poland.

Polish flag

He sported a Polish flag pin on his jacket, because, he said, he wanted to break the PiS monopoly on patriotic symbols and on Poland's historical narrative.

He also has a recipe for fighting populists at the polls.

"Accountability, bring values back, bring a sense of identity, don't let them take over your history, your past," he said.

The rising star declined to say which EP group his new party might join if it gets into the EU legislature in May.

He has held meetings with the liberal Alde group, the Greens, Macron's En Marche movement, and with the head of the centre-left S&D group, German MEP Udo Bullmann.

But he ruled out joining the centre-right EPP bloc so long as Viktor Orban, Hungary's illiberal leader, was a member of its ranks.

"I'm progressive, so for me, the question of joining a group is not a problem, the problem is what will be the composition of the next EP," Biedron said.

He voiced criticism of his own natural allies, saying EU liberals and socialists had yielded ground to populists and xenophobes on issues of European history and identity.

The liberals and the left behaved as if "we have reached the end of history, that values do not matter anymore, and that talk of identity was something old-fashioned" he said.

History and identity needed to be at the centre of an EU progressive revival, he told this website.

Campaign trail

Biedron, who gave up his mayoral seat in order to focus on the EP campaign, said he would hold 40 rallies between now and May in order to get to know Poles better.

Constituents had already been surprisingly open with him so far, he said.

"It gives me wings - a kind of certainty that if we do not make mistakes, and something terrible will not happen from the side of the ruling party towards us, then we will be successful, and we will change the face of Poland in the European Parliament, European Union, that we will change politics in Poland," he said.

Poland ought to play a key role in shaping EU policy on energy, social justice, education and democratic rules, he noted.

"I want Polish people to finally feel that: 'Yes, it is not only that we have ab EU passport, that we can use the euro, it is also we can use European values and solutions - equality, freedom, dignity'," Biedron said.

It was time for PiS and other populists to stop treating the EU like a cash cow, he said.

PiS was interested only in EU subsidies, but not in common values, he said.

"I don't agree [with this approach]. The EU is a community values, a community of nations, of people who share the same dreams about the same continent we want to live in," he said.

He said people ought to have the chance to directly elect the president of the EU Council and that the EP should have the power to initiate laws, which is currently the prerogative of the European Commission.

That would bring the EU closer to its citizens and increase "credibility, accountability, [and] trust," he said.

Polish opposition

Biedron said he was open to cooperating with Civic Platform (PO), Poland's centrist opposition party, but that he would not join its ranks.

The PO has called for protests against PiS meddling in Poland's judiciary, but it did not support freedom of assembly more broadly speaking, Biedron said, noting that the PO mayor of Lublin, in south-east Poland, had recently banned a gay pride march.

"Protecting the Constitutional Tribunal and freedom of assembly are, for me, the same thing, but they [PO] don't understand that," he said.

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