The EU according to Krzysztof Szczerski

English version of Piotr Buras' article on Polish nominated for European commissar and his views on the EU

There should be no doubt that the problems that Krzysztof Szczerski – and the entire Law and Justice (PiS) party – have with the European Union are mainly caused by the sense of otherness when viewing the West. However, they value the benefits of the bloc.

One of the most commonly heard questions from foreign observers is whether the actions of the PiS government in Europe spring from a kind of strategy or are a more emotional than rational response to problems. There is no need to explain the source of these questions. But it is difficult to dispel the attendant doubts, even for those who keep a close eye on PiS activities in Brussels salons.

Szczerski’s arrival will provide some relief to those struggling with that task. Until recently, he was head of the Polish president’s office and a prominent speaker for PiS on foreign affairs. He has recently published a book called European Utopia: The Integration Crisis and the Polish Repair Initiative (published by Biały Kruk). In it, he explains the causes of the current malaise within the EU and lays out a vision for Europe along the lines of his government’s, as well as a Polish “strategy of flexible choice based on one’s own potential”. Szczerski is among the best-informed members of PiS, as demonstrated by his title of professor at Jagiellonian University, his previous publications, and the impressive references he makes to the literature on foreign affairs. In expert circles, it is said that, if Szczerski or Konrad Szymański genuinely controlled Poland’s European policy (rather than just putting their seal of approval on how it is run), its pratfalls would not be quite so badly received.

The EU’s flaws

What is most striking about Szczerski is his clear distance from the EU project in its current form. This distance should not be equated with criticism – which, in fact, he does not hesitate to dish out to EU institutions, certain integration initiatives, and especially the eurozone. The EU is far from ideal – and Szczerski is certainly correct on many points, especially when he notes the problems with how the common currency is constructed or the risk linked to centralising budget supervision without democratic legitimacy. In these cases, Szczerski follows the line taken by analysts. However, when he is describing the shortcomings of the EU, he usually overlooks his professor’s robes and opts for his party colours instead. And, when he is acting as an ideologue, the EU takes on a decidedly disturbing face.

For him, this is “the last moment to save the European Union”. Worse still, we read, the EU’s current state – practically in its death throes – is the result of the hostile takeover of what was a healthy and valid project at its formation in the 1950s by the 1968 generation of the liberal left elite, which seeks to implement its “constructivist utopias”. In all seriousness, Szczerski writes that at the root of the EU’s current crisis are the attempts made by “a specific caste of people without features” (the Brussels elite) to create a “unified Europe”, to impose a left-wing social model, and to rid the EU of Christian principles. He concludes that Europe “is transforming into a post-cultural, post-civilisational or post-identity mass of undefined forces and processes”. To prove this, he refers to Christian refugees from the Middle East who are “alarmed by the extent to which Europe is non-Christian”.

It is hard to dispel the impression that the subject being discussed is not so much the modern EU but rather the system of values which is predominant in western Europe. PiS considers this to be a source of moral corruption and decay (former foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski views vegetarians and cyclists as prime examples of this). This sense of otherness – of a West consumed by secularism, multiculturalism, LGBTQ issues, and postmodernism – is doubtlessly the most important source of the problem Szczerski and the whole of PiS have with today’s EU. The book puts forward a striking vision of the political and social processes under way in Europe. It leaves no place for organic changes in a society or a value system (as depicted in Ronald Inglehart’s classic The Silent Revolution). No, in his view, the world we live in – its institutions, laws, and problems – is not the result of a gradual evolution of social attitudes (towards women, minorities, the climate, and religion) but rather of an ideological project imposed by all-powerful elite. And the present-day EU is portrayed as merely an instrument to apply this left-wing project in the last bastions of resistance.

Szczerski does not shed light on which actions undertaken by EU institutions (besides their criticism of the rule of law in Poland) are testimony to the “left-wing naval boarding”. When he writes that “in the debate on the construction of the common market, evaluation assumptions were abused which were based on left-wing political ideas”, it is hard to suppress one’s confusion. The common market led to a far-reaching liberalisation that was not accompanied by any counterbalances in the social sphere at the EU level. This is one of the reasons many people associate the EU with the negative aspects of globalisation and why today there are discussions on a so-called “social integration pillar”.

The fulcrum of the Polish initiative

Thus, today’s EU is heading towards the abyss, partly because it is usurping too much power and is recklessly moving towards federalisation. Szczerski has criticised the EU by saying it failed to ensure the safety of its citizens during the eurozone and migration crises. But he ignores the fact that these greatest trials of recent years were down to the lack of the appropriate competences on an EU level rather than an excess of them. EU countries wanted to benefit from the euro while also maintaining their sovereignty in budgetary matters and in economic policy. They wanted open internal borders but without sharing responsibility for asylum and migration policy. In short, they wanted to have their cake and eat it. The crises thus above all laid bare the hypocrisy of member states, not the errors of a mythical Brussels. If we do not wish to withdraw from the euro and the Schengen zone, then, to repair them, integration needs to be strengthened rather than reduced. And, although Szczerski terms them “constructivist utopias”, rejecting them would entail great risk.

Reading through European Utopia will make it somewhat easier to respond to questions from external observers regarding the motivations of Polish policy in the EU. But it will remain a thankless task. Instead of being an analysis of the political processes taking place in Europe, Szczerski’s vision of the Polish initiative to repair the EU is extremely inward-looking, firmly rooted in the Polish tradition, in the imaginings of one’s own nation and its historic mission.

Anyone picking up European Utopia may feel dizzy reading the assurances that Poland is such “a unique example of a society and people” that can demonstrate “how to protect the EU from disaster” like no other. The fulcrum of the “Polish initiative” is the idea of intergovernmental democracy (deduced, naturally, from the democratic traditions of the nobility), which is to be a response to the key problem of the EU’s lack of legitimacy. Szczerski spends a lot of time explaining this, but is extremely hazy about it. Probably because the only way to understand it is as efforts to introduce the principle of liberum veto (which is infamous in Polish history) into the EU’s decision-making processes, which are generally run along the lines of qualified majorities. Besides this, Szczerski recommends that the role of national parliaments be strengthened, that economic rules be simplified, that the EU have a stronger role as a partner to NATO in international security, and that the EU “regain its soul” (in other words, return to Christianity as a symbol of the foundation of European identity). So, there is much talk of renationalisation and some generalisations. It is hard to believe that this may be the genuine “repair” and “overhaul of the structures” of the EU that the author is calling for.

The strategy for Poland put forward by Szczerski, besides its historic mission, emphasised the need to implement Poland’s national interest. Instead of adapting to the demands of the membership of the EU’s core, we should build up our subjectivity on our native potential and prepare for the various possible outcomes as the situation develops, including the breakup of the EU. We need to build our strength in the region and have a “group of partners to create a joint action plan in the group of countries without the common currency”. And it is far from certain that the “first speed” of integration is the best solution.

In these considerations, there is no reflection on how to best take advantage of EU membership’s potential to develop Poland’s influence. In Szczerski’s book, there is much talk of the community within the EU but Poland remains a somewhat separate entity – it would first like to build up its own potential to later join the European game with its own capabilities. This scenario is very hard to imagine in real politics. Furthermore, the conviction that Poland could develop faster in a more relaxed union with the EU than at present is a dangerous illusion.

Analysts who read Szczerski’s to understand not the ideological foundations but the direction of Poland’s current European policy will unfortunately not be greatly enlightened. On the one hand, Szczerski criticises the concept of a “multi-speed” Europe. On the other, though, he talks in favour of a polycentric EU that would enable the existence of many integration centres; he even believes Poland should be one of these. This ambivalence is a perfect reflection of the Polish government’s attempt to sit on two chairs at once. It is pursuing aspects of a multi-speed Europe (so they’ll give us a break with the refugees and the euro) but is also afraid of this (because the EU might stop giving us money). Szczerski the politician accuses the European Commission of usurping power but, once he temporarily dons his professorial robes, he is simultaneously able to ponder whether the Commission is weaker than it has ever been. Finally, he criticises the excessive significance of the European Council (the institution that brings together the heads of state or government of EU countries, and that functions with unanimity). He sees here “the private transnational power of large countries”. That’s right: the more the intergovernmental method is applied, the greater the role Germany and France. But hadn’t Szczerski just a moment ago been hawking “intergovernmental democracy”?

The West is something foreign

The lack of clarity surrounding Poland’s ideas about the future of the EU may irritate external observers who hear our politicians talk of the need to change treaties and to fundamentally reshape the EU, with Poland taking a leading role in the process. The repair initiative outlined by Szczerski may speak to a section of Polish society, but its ideological foundations and its emphasis on a national liberum veto point to Poland’s isolation in Europe.

The vast majority of EU citizens are often highly critical of Brussels, of austerity, and of migration policy. For them, the present-day EU is not a left-wing utopia but a natural and necessary entity – natural in the sense that it emanates from the history and values system that formed Europe in recent decades. PiS politicians lack a strong bond with the project and a conviction of their joint ownership of it not because the European Commission is too strong and Germany is too powerful or because the common market is overregulated. No, it is because they feel that the values of an open, liberal society are a threat to Polishness and that the West is a foreign entity. This is why the discussion they have begun on Poland’s place in Europe is so different from those in other countries (with the possible exception of Hungary). Essentially, this concerns the question of whether the existing Europe and EU (with all their faults) are also “ours”, or whether we wish to build our own kind of European utopia on the basis of the “inestimable lessons” of Polish history? In other words, the issue at hand is not really what speed Europe should have but rather which social and cultural model we would like to live in.


This article was first published in Polityka Weekly on 25 April 2017.

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