As if the past year hadn’t already been difficult enough, Poland and Hungary recently threatened to derail negotiations over the Multiannual Financial Framework and the Next Generation EU fund, both of which are designed to help the European Union and its members cope with the economic fallout of covid-19 crisis. The standoff was at least temporarily resolved by a show of constructive ambiguity. Yet the whole fracas puts a long-standing paradox into stark relief.
Poland, whose citizens are among the most pro-EU in the union, remains either on the periphery of the European project, as shown by ECFR’s Coalition Explorer, or in direct opposition to its main trends: not only on foreign and climate policy, but also on the interpretation of the EU’s fundamental values and national sovereignty. Domestically, there is no significant voting bloc that would support hardline opposition to the EU, but this is the approach that the government in Warsaw has taken. The result of the showdown at the EU summit in December 2020 is somewhat mixed – while it has shown that Eurosceptics in Poland are not able to force a truly hardline course, it has also broken an important political taboo.
The Next Generation EU fund has widespread support in Poland, with more than 50 per cent of respondents reporting positive feelings about it, compared to just 16.6 per cent who say they have a negative attitude towards it. Most Poles who voted for the ruling United Right coalition are more optimistic about the fund than average, and more likely to argue that the package is not big enough. Only supporters of far-right Konfederacja, an eclectic coalition of free-marketeers and nationalists, express significant negative feelings about the fund, but even they are almost evenly split on the issue.
Several topics that are at the heart of tense EU debates do not seem to be so controversial in Poland. Frugal countries’ worries about the EU spending too much money have little resonance in the country. In Poland, voters’ perceptions of their country’s influence seem driven more by party loyalty than disagreements over specific policies.
Granted, there are some substantial differences. Supporters of Poland’s ruling parties see little benefit in the human rights and rule of law protections that the EU provides. In contrast, opposition voters often state that these protections are important. On balance, however, all Polish voters see the EU as providing a strong mixture of economic, foreign policy, and values-based benefits. In other polls, less than 10 per cent of voters say that they want Poland to leave the EU.
Given this broad support for the union in Poland, what drives the government to threaten to veto a wildly popular project that promises to have significant economic benefits for Polish voters? Party politics is the culprit. United Right comprises the dominant Law and Justice party flanked by two minor parties: the centre-right Agreement and the far-right United Poland. Each of these smaller parties has enough MPs to deprive the government of its parliamentary majority. And, in recent times, they have been increasingly at odds with each other and with their senior coalition partner.
At the same time, the government is facing severe stress at home. Firstly, after handling the initial wave of the coronavirus well, the government let its guard down and botched preparations for the second one. Secondly, the Constitutional Tribunal – which the government packed with its nominees in a series of illegal manoeuvres that sparked the rule of law dispute – banned abortion in case of foetal defects, sparking protests on an unprecedented scale. As the members of United Right dropped in the polls, internal disputes and power struggles between them intensified. A major player in these is Zbigniew Ziobro, leader of United Poland and the minister of justice. As the leader of his party, he plays to United Right’s nationalist conservative base with a narrative of sovereignty and anti-German sentiment. As a minister, he is the main driver of the government’s efforts to control the judiciary.
As a result, Ziobro and other United Poland politicians have used a kind of rhetoric that had not featured in mainstream Polish politics in a long while, questioning the benefits of Poland’s EU membership and suggesting that the country could go it alone. For the first time since the EU referendum in 2004, mainstream politicians argued that Poland could be better off outside the union. Ziobro’s approach initially succeeded in forcing the government to adopt a hardline stance in negotiations with the EU and a great deal of sovereigntist rhetoric at home. Ultimately, however, it all proved to be bluster, as the government abandoned its veto while the rule of law mechanism remained in place, albeit with its implementation delayed.
At home, too, the result was a climbdown. Despite earlier threats, United Poland politicians narrowly voted to remain in the coalition – likely due to their realisation that an independent party advocating departure from the EU would be unviable, given the broad support for the union among the electorate. One can, however, expect the anti-EU rhetoric to return. The dispute over the Next Generation EU fund, the Multiannual Financial Framework, and the rule of law mechanism weakened the taboo around discussions on leaving the union.
Furthermore, it will now be more difficult for the government to maintain its balancing act between appealing to the pro-EU majority and presenting itself as a staunch and effective defender of Polish interests against the anti-EU elements in its base. As future disputes over the rule of law mechanisms arise, hardliners will attempt to frame them as proof that Poland’s influence in the EU is diminishing. This will feed resentment of the union and increase the reach of anti-EU figures in Polish politics.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.