Poland’s new government has shaped the country after its own image in just a few years
Jarosław Kaczyński’s Poland is fighting the European Union on several fronts and shows no signs of retreating. Stubbornness may drive Poland into isolation.
The nerve centre of Poland’s political power is not the country’s parliament or the presidential residence. It is located in a building on Nowogrodzka Street, not far from Warsaw’s city centre, where the headquarters of the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party is located. The leader of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński (68), arrives there every morning. Throughout the day, cars bring ministers and important officials to see Kaczyński and receive instructions.
Kaczyński, who respects Catholic values and has been called bull-headed, is an ordinary member of parliament, but is said to be the mastermind behind everything currently taking place in Poland.
In 2015, Kaczyński chose as the party’s candidate for the presidency 45-year-old Andrzej Duda, a Polish member of the European Parliament who was almost unknown to the general public at the time. To everybody’s surprise, Duda was elected. Duda’s victory established a road to power for PiS in the parliamentary elections held in October the same year. PiS obtained an absolute majority in both houses of parliament. Beata Szydło (54), who was also Kaczyński’s personal choice, became prime minister.
The electoral cycle is just halfway through, but the government has already managed to shape Poland entirely according to its liking. Reforms have been conducted with the similar fierce haste and the same principles as in Hungary after Viktor Orbán became prime minister in the spring of 2010.
The government apparatus has been purged of representatives of the former power in an unprecedentedly radical manner, and replaced with PiS supporters. The judges of the Constitutional Court were also changed, which has resulted in paralysis in the court’s work. The state media has become a government mouthpiece and restrictions on the activities of media based in foreign capitals are also expected.
Kaczyński’s Poland has also stood by Orbán’s Hungary over immigration policy and does not approve of the EU’s quota system, pursuant to which Poland should receive its share of the 160,000 asylum-seekers stuck in Italy and Greece. Hungary and Slovakia took the mechanism to the European Court of Justice, which nevertheless rejected the complaint. Regardless of the ECJ’s decision, Poland and Hungary intend to continue their immigration policy.
On 7 October, about half a million Poles formed a human chain on the country’s borders. The mass gathering was organised by the Catholic Church in Poland. The people gathered at the border prayed for Poland, Europe and the whole world to be saved from Islamification.
“Poland is in danger. We have to protect our families, homes and homeland from all kinds of danger that the EU liberals create for us,” said Marcin Dybowski, an activist in the Catholic Church, to the news agency AFP in an interview about the mass gathering.
Judicial Reform as a Touchstone
The Polish government has also tried to meddle in the actions of the judiciary, even though an independent judiciary is a vital condition of EU membership and one of the cornerstones of democracy. In the summer of 2017, the parliament passed three laws that caused Poles to take to the streets and upset the European Commission.
The first of these laws gave the Minister of Justice power to choose judges in the lower courts. The second law disbanded the National Council of the Judiciary, which appointed judges and gave parliament the power to appoint them. The third law dismissed all incumbent Supreme Court judges, forcing them to retire, and gave the Minister of Justice the power to choose new ones.
The EU already has several ongoing infringement proceedings against Poland. Following these judicial reforms, the EU is even threatening to trigger Article 7 of the EU Treaty against Poland if the package of laws concerning the court is not changed. In practice, this would mean that, in the most extreme case, Poland could be deprived of its right to vote in the EU’s collective decision-making mechanism. This is unprecedented in the history of the Union.
Surprisingly, and to soften the confrontation with the EU, President Andrzej Duda refused to confirm the law on the National Council of the Judiciary. He also did not sign the law with which the government could have disbanded the current Supreme Court. Kaczyński and other leading PiS politicians strongly criticised the president for this.
In late September, Duda presented his own proposals on the rejected laws. The amendments are minor, and in essence follow the government’s standpoint. Members of the National ouncil should receive 60% support in parliament, which must include parties other than PiS. In addition, not all of the Supreme Court judges would immediately be dismissed as the government wanted.
“The main goal of Duda’s proposals is the politicisation of the appointment of court judges. The only change is that the president limits the power of the Minister of Justice, and strengthens his own,” expounded law professor Ewa Łętowska on the president’s proposals, according to the online newspaper EUObserver.
A Strong Economy as a Result of Shock Therapy
Just a handful of years ago, Poland was considered a success story in the EU. The country, with nearly 40 million inhabitants, had successfully made the leap into democracy. The uplift had continued almost unbroken since the “shock treatment” of the 1990s, which turned the country into a market economy at a stroke. The initial consequences were harsh for Poles, but in the end a strong economy and a new middle class emerged and have fared pretty well in the last ten years.
Poland, which joined the EU in 2004, retained its strong economy even during the economic and financial crisis that began in 2008. Poland was the only EU member state that managed to keep its economy in the black. This year, it is forecast that Poland’s economic growth will be the fastest in the EU, at up to 4%. The Polish market is large and the workforce still cheap, which is why foreign investors are also interested in it. In present-day Poland, there is work for almost every jobseeker, and some sectors are even experiencing labour shortages.
So why has the former model student of the EU become a misfit like Hungary that puts the unity of the whole Union to the test? Hungary has promised to stand by Poland and vote down all EU attempts to resolve the situation.
Poland did not turn into a nationalist country with disregard for the EU’s fundamental values overnight. Before PiS came to power, the country was governed for eight years by the centre-right Civic Platform (PO), a clearly more liberal party than PiS. In the end, a long time in office, a technocratic operating style, and involvement in a scandal alienated PO from the people.
Many Poles tired of constant economic reforms and wanted a more social-based policy. Not everyone is doing well in Poland; there are huge regional disparities between attractive cities and declining rural areas.
“PiS says that it will go where Pendolinos [high-speed trains built in Italy—Ed.] cannot reach,” said Santeri Eriksson, First Secretary at the Finnish Embassy in Warsaw, who has been following Polish politics for three years. “Innovations like the child allowance programme ‘500+’ and lowering the retirement age were also attributed to the people’s party.”
PiS has adhered to several of its campaign promises and its support has therefore remained high, near 35–40%. The retirement age has been reduced to 60 for women and 65 for men, whereas PO had decided to gradually raise it to 67. The monthly child allowance of 500 zloty (117 euro), paid for the second and subsequent children, is a major victory, since the average wage in Poland is about 1,000 euro a month. Poor families with a single child are also entitled to the allowance.
A Ripple or a Longer-term Change?
Poland has been politically divided into two very different camps for the whole of its recent history, according to Łukasz Lipiński, a researcher for Polytika Insight.
The struggle has been going on between the modern EU state and the old Poland that relies on Christian and family values. (Jarosław Kaczyński was the prime minister of Poland in 2005–7.)
“The division continues, and the decisive question is whether PiS’s current rise to power is a temporary ripple characteristic of politics, or a more lasting sign of Poland’s wish to return to traditional values,” said Lipiński. “Poland was preoccupied for a long time with the idea that it was important to attain the Western European standard of living. Right now, the main worry seems to be that it must also be considered who Poles are and where they come from.”
The sharp division of Poland into two can also be brought down to the duel between two strong Polish politicians, Jarosław Kaczyński and Donald Tusk. Tusk was the chairman of the Civic Platform and Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to the end of 2014, when he was elected president of the European Council.
In late 2016 and early 2017, Kaczyński used all his influence in the state in an attempt to prevent the re-election of Tusk for a second term. Kaczyński has accused Tusk of being involved in the “murder” of his twin brother Lech, the former president of Poland who died in 2010 in an aircraft accident near Smolensk. Jarosław Kaczyński has never accepted the official version of events, according to which the accident was the result of pilot error in bad weather conditions.
Some of Kaczyński’s fellow party members have demanded that Tusk be charged with treason. They allege that, as prime minister, Tusk—together with the Russians—played a part in covering up the real reasons for the accident. According to some conspiracy theories, Lech Kaczyński had to be eliminated for political reasons.
Kaczyński and Tusk have been political rivals since the 1990s, even though both were students of the Solidarity movement. The movement founded by Lech Wałęsa played a pivotal role in the collapse of communism in Poland. With the change of system, Kaczyński and Tusk parted ways.
Kaczyński Will Not Back Down
Poland has become a real headache for the EU as it plans to reform itself. Not only does Poland disregard EU fundamental values, but it also intends to demand that Germany pays reparations related to World War II, among other things. Poland also intends to ignore the European Court of Justice’s order to halt large-scale logging in the rare Białowieża forest; rather, it continues to fell trees in the region, which is on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The president of France, Emmanuel Macron, has publicly stated that Poland is isolating itself in the EU, and that “Poles have earned a better government than the current one, which fights against democracy”. Italy—where a large proportion of refugees aspiring to make it to the heart of Europe have got stuck—has demanded a reduction in EU funding to Poland. (Poland has received over 70 billion euro from Brussels in seven years, and total EU spending there to 2020 will be as much as 86 billion euro.)
The Polish government has strongly denied that its reforms contradict EU acquis, and has claimed that the EU is deliberately misinterpreting its actions. The government has also not shown any signs of backing down. Jarosław Kaczyński, who pulls the strings behind the scenes, is considered a man who will not budge once he has made up his mind on something.
Still, Poland is not about to leave the EU, even though a potential Polexit has made headlines several times this autumn. Support for the EU is strong: 88% of Poles say they support the country’s membership. Polish politicians listen carefully to the voice of the people, since the country has a strong tradition of demonstrations. For example, about a year ago Poles won a round in mass protests against tightening the abortion law. However, the government has not shelved the law; instead it says it intends to address it in a new format.
The Polish government wants more national powers for EU member states, and did not approve of President Emmanuel Macron’s ambitious vision according to which the EU should have a common budget and joint military units. Prime Minister Beata Szydło has also condemned the idea of a multi-speed Europe, even though it is already a reality in practice—only 19 of the 28 member states are part of the eurozone. PiS believes that Poland will not be ready for the euro for another 10 to 20 years.
Senior analyst Marcin Zaborowski considers it possible that Poland will leave the EU if relations with it deteriorate and if, for example, a compromise cannot be reached over the reform of the judiciary.
“If Poland’s membership of the EU becomes too big an obstacle, PiS will remove that obstacle,” said Zaborowski in the journal Visegrad Insight, which specialises in foreign policy.
Russia is the Main Enemy
Kaczyński’s policy in Poland is based on the same values as Orbán’s in Hungary. Family, faith and fatherland are important. Both swear allegiance to democracy, but both find liberal democracy and multiculturalism as abhorrent as repressive communist power.
Poland thinks, like Hungary, that it is fighting foreign dominance. And, just like Hungary, Poland also wants to become a model state that the rest of Europe can learn from.
It is said that Orbán’s “illiberal democracy” has the same origin as Vladimir Putin’s in Russia. Even though the Polish model may look the same from outside, it is never acknowledged. Russia is now a strategic partner for Hungary, but Poland’s main enemy. Polish identity is based on opposition to Russia.
Translated from Finnish by Erkki Bahovski
This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.