“I don’t think the party really wants to leave Europe, they just want Poland to be more assertive when it comes to things like Europe’s response to the refugee crisis,” Pawel Swidlicki, research analyst, Open Europe
A Nation unto God:
In Europe, Poland has long been associated with the strong conservatism both politically and socially that seems to haunt former Soviet states. Indeed, this opinion would be no surprise to any traveller who has visited the state.
With the vast majority of Poles identifying as Catholic, almost every house has a crucifix prominently displayed and a picture of the late Polish Pope John Paul II. Issues on “gender” (a word which in Poland has become synonymous with feminism and gay rights issues) are largely dismissed out of hand as harming the fabric of Polish society, and Europe’s current key debate on whether to accept refugees from the Middle East is treated much the same.
With all of this in mind it is understandable for the outside observer to instantly assume that for the past ten years Polish politics would have already been dominated by far right parties. Instead, Poland has largely been governed by Centre-Right Liberals who have guided the country through the collapse of the Soviet Union and into the global market.
This largely moderate parliament had governed largely based on the ideals of their Christian faith and measured caution in regards to issues such as race, sexuality or even the latest migrant crisis or growing threat of radicalism. With the latest election however, politics in Poland are set to change.
As of the 25th of October, Poland’s far-right coalition has capitalized on the country’s disenfranchised youth and stagnating middle-class. This defined shift towards right-wing conservatism has finally brought to light the country’s “Euroscepticism” and deep resentment towards refugee resettlement, a move that has highlighted a growing loss of confidence in the EU regionally that has seen a string of similar conservative parties elected across the continent.
A hunger for change:
For the past ten years Poland has had the centre right party Platforma Obywatelska (PO), led by then President Bronislaw Komorowski and Premier Donald Tusk (succeeded by Ewa Kopac) dominate Polish politics. PO’s platforms mixed a stated objective of defending Polish culture that was largely defined by the country’s catholic identity. Consequently, successive governments have opposed abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia and other similar social issues whilst pushing an agenda for increased privatization across the country whilst reforming monetary policy and minimizing bureaucracy.
Recently, the party has begun to show its age. It soon became apparent that PO would lose the latest election after the party experienced a spate of successive scandals. Accusations of corruption as well as documented cases of nepotism inflamed the public, causing widespread distrust, the most recent ‘corruption perception index’ rated Poland as 38th out of 175.
At the heart of the middle-class and youth’s discontent has also been the fact that Poland’s ‘economic miracle’ has not translated to widespread wealth, which has led to a wide-spread belief that the benefits have been limited to those with connections rather than qualifications.
The day of reckoning for PO arrived earlier this year when President Komorowski lost out to the candidate from the far right wing party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS), Andzej Duda. The only hope that PO had was to retain power in the countries legislature, however these dreams were swept away only days ago when the candidate for PiS, Beata Szydlo, was elected into the office of Premier.
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- The EU is struggling to cope with the biggest mass migration since the end of WWII. Read more in – Europe: Crisis in the Mediterranean
Underestimated and Undervalued by the EU:
The West’s general view of Poland is that of a former communist state struggling to find its place amongst the leaders of the European Union. Pandering to such stereotypes, it then comes as no surprise to outside observers that the country has responded to political instability by gravitating towards authoritarianism. Unfortunately this dismissal disguises what data shows to be one of Europe’s most vital players who have often been side-lined rather than engaged as a member with a stake in the EU’s future.
Some vital statistics illustrate the true importance of Poland: the population is just under 40 million people (not including the 20 million Poles living and voting in diaspora), making it the EU’s sixth most populous nation. Poland’s total GDP for 2014 was US$548 billion (or $24,430 per capita) making it the EU’s 9th largest economy. Furthermore Poland is one of only five NATO nations that meet the 2% of GDP defence spending quota stipulated by the Alliance and in light of Russia’s increasingly aggressive expansionism, is strategically placed considering they share a border. In short, the Polish economy is not one to be sneered at and written off by the historic leaders of the EU such as France and Germany.
Under pressure, Europe cracks down
Still the question can be asked “how does the election result of one EU nation effect the make up of the EU?”. Well the simple answer is, it doesn’t necessarily, or perhaps not in the way you would think. What should be raising concern is that this victory of a right wing political party or at least the adoption of more right wing policies is one that could be seen as a general trend sweeping across Europe in response to radicalization, migration and the slowdown of the bloc’s economies.
Already the Conservative Hungarian government of Viktor Orban has been causing waves in the European community, with its hard stance on immigrants and its softening of relations with Russia. Following the victory of PiS in Poland, even Switzerland saw its government turn to the far right wing. While the problem of the massive influx of refugees from across Africa and the Middle East was more or less being dealt with through calm talks and negotiation between EU members, with the recent Paris attacks it would be no surprise if the far right capitalised on the tragic event highlighting this as an example of the EU being unable to protect its boarders. Of course it can be very easy to discount a lot of the nations swinging to the far right as small powers, which are simply able to be thorns in the side of the goliath EU. Or furthermore relegate the linkage between terrorism and refugees as a philosophy only to be applied to xenophobic parties and “backwards” nations throughout Europe. But such explanations become problematic when players such as the UK turn further and further to right wing nationalist policies.
Britain considers an exit
Whilst Europe becomes increasingly divided, the alarm bells have been chiming more and more in the past months over a potential “Brexit” (Britain exiting the EU) from the EU. This has largely been brought about by the migrant crisis which has put pressure on all EU nations, especially France, Germany and Britain, which have attracted the most migrants due to the potential to secure higher paying jobs and better social security nets.
Although subsided for the moment, the constant financial strife that has plagued the EU has not won many friends in London either. For the average Englishman these are problems they shouldn’t have to deal with and as such are becoming more and more open to the possibly of a Brexit. This call has certainly not fallen on deaf ears. David Cameron, the current British Prime minister and Conservative Party leader has increasingly directed his rhetoric towards this direction, signalling a referendum to be held on the matter in 2016.
Ultimately, if an event such as the exit of Britain from the EU were ever to occur, questions would definitely begin to be raised regarding the coherency, relevance and worth of the Union. If such a powerful and influential player can simply up and leave, would it cause a domino effect of one nation after another following suit?
The temptation to categorise far right parties in Europe such as the French “National Front”, the German “Pegida” movement or the British UKIP as crack pots who will forever remain fringe groups who do not represent the wider population is unremarkably easy although highly dangerous. Poland’s recent experience illustrated this scenario perfectly.
For close to ten years Poland was governed by a centre right party which seemed impervious to losing power. However PiS’s victory and subsequent control over both the legislature and executive shook this reality. This overwhelming victory was ultimately caused by a disenfranchised population perceiving their elected officials as corrupt, ineffective and weak. What PiS was able to offer was an alternative to this dismal view, a renewal of Poland, in effect returning Poland to the Poles.
The European community should wake up and pay attention to the victory of PiS in Poland as a potential signal to a growing trend of far right politics which could jeopardise a fragile Union which stands on the threshold of turmoil.
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