Not so fast: Why Polish public opinion could slow Warsaw’s EU homecoming

Poland’s October election has been hailed by Brussels as an emphatic return to EU centre stage. But as recent ECFR polling shows, Poles are not so thrilled with how the union is addressing their own concerns

Prime Minister of Poland Donald Tusk walks in the Special European Council meeting. EU leaders gathered on 1 February 2024 in Brussels.
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In the last two weeks, the government in Warsaw has managed to unlock the long-awaited EU recovery fund, ending a years-long battle over rule of law with the European Commission. Prime minister Donald Tusk together with foreign affairs minister Radosław Sikorski also began reinvigorating the abandoned Weimar format for deeper cooperation with their French and German counterparts. It would seem that after its historic pro-European election, Poland is back driving change and doing its part to address the Europe Union’s leadership deficit.

When, on 15 October, Poles voted to end the illiberal rule of the Law and Justice party and entrust the future of the Polish state to the so-called October 15 coalition of Civic Coalition, Third Way, and the Left, European leaders breathed a sigh of relief. Subsequently, hopes for Poland’s return as an engine of European integration have been voiced in many corners of the continent. The developments of the past two weeks indeed appear to be fulfilling such expectations of renewed multilateral cooperation between Polish and European leaders.

However, while Poles reiterated their support for their country’s firm place in the EU and sought an end to the political bickering, they continue to have a rather negative view of how the EU has coped with its most important challenges. As recent ECFR polling demonstrates, the new government’s room for manoeuvre on European policy may be limited by citizens’ growing unease with Brussels and its perceived inability to tackle the most pressing problems.

According to Poles, has the EU done a  good or bad job handling…
According to Poles, has the EU done a  good or bad job handling…

Poles think the EU fairs the worst when it comes to immigration. Seventy per cent of Poles rate the EU’s handling of immigration negatively and 34 per cent think it has done a ‘very bad job’. Similarly, the EU’s response to global economic turmoil is not viewed as particularly competent by 57 per cent of Poles. Climate change comes in at a close third, with 53 per cent disapproving. The picture becomes a bit more optimistic when looking at the EU’s handling of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the covid-19 pandemic. On these two policy areas, Poles are rather split – while 49 per cent see the EU’s actions in relation to the Russian invasion negatively, 42 per cent have a positive assessment. The EU’s handling of the pandemic is the most positive, albeit still negative overall – with 48 per cent viewing it as ‘fairly bad’ or ‘very bad’ and 43 per cent approving.

The issues that have, over the past decade, most changed the way Poles look at their future.
The issues that have, over the past decade, most changed the way Poles look at their future.

What may be slightly reassuring is that the Russian invasion and the covid-19 pandemic are the two issues that, over the past decade, have most impacted how Poles look at their future (around 31 per cent and 16 per cent respectively). So while the EU’s capabilities of overcoming challenges are generally viewed quite negatively, Poles are most positive on the issues that matter to them.

By supporters of Polish political parties, has the EU done a good or bad job handling…
By supporters of Polish political parties, has the EU done a good or bad job handling…

Predictably, voters of the right-wing party duo of Confederation and Law and Justice are leading in the level of dissatisfaction in almost all policy areas. Around 80 per cent of right-wing voters view the EU’s response on immigration negatively. However, they are not the only ones. In almost every policy area, voters of centre-right Third Way, which received 14 per cent of the vote in the election, are closer to Law and Justice and Confederation voters in their opinions than they are to the Left or Civic Coalition. This illustrates that the European divide is not only between the October 15 coalition and Law and Justice, but that there is criticism within those who voted for the current leadership.

Overall, the questions asked in the polling measure a general feeling and they are not a verdict on a specific EU policy such as the European Green Deal, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, or the next package of sanctions against Russia. Nor does it tell us precisely why Polish voters are not pleased with the actions of the EU. However, it does illustrate, that in the case of Poland, the last eight years of toxic propaganda on the competences, motives, and actions of the EU has likely played a large part. Despite a win for the liberal alliance, polling data suggest that Poland did not escape the right-wing turn in Europe, and that to many Poles, the EU doing a good job is no longer synonymous with a progressive, open border, liberal agenda.

Despite a win for the liberal alliance, polling data suggest that Poland did not escape the right-wing turn in Europe, and that to many Poles, the EU doing a good job is no longer synonymous with a progressive, open border, liberal agenda

This at least, is clearly the interpretation of Tusk, one he made obvious during the electoral campaign and continues to reiterate now. While Tusk has highlighted the need for Poland to come back into the European fold, he has so far focused on solutions which put Poland’s security and national interest first, whether on migration, the European Green Deal, EU reform, or issues associated with Ukraine’s accession to the EU like the grain crisis. In his first few months in power, the former president of the European Council is putting some distance between himself and the EU, especially given the upcoming electoral cumulation in Poland – local government in April, European Parliament in June, and presidential in early 2025.

In the meantime, Law and Justice and Confederation, who still received over 40 per cent of the vote, are waiting to turn even a slight comprise with Brussels into an attack on the Polish state. Operating in such a polarised society, combined with the need to pass myriad difficult domestic reforms, the ability of the new government to push for European solutions is limited.

Therefore, European’s expectations of what Poland’s election means for them need to be managed. Indeed, they no longer have to worry about Polexit or Warsaw trampling over EU law – Poland is certainly returning to the EU mainstream and will once again be a partner in European policy making. But the EU mainstream and the political centre is different now than it was eight years ago when Tusk left his post as prime minister. Criticisms of the EU are abundant, and Poland – while still pro-European – is not unique in this regard. In this current climate we are unlikely to see an integrationist push and the leadership from Poland that Europe so sorely needs.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

Author

Programme Coordinator, ECFR Warsaw

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