Poland’s EU budget veto stokes talk of ‘Polexit’

Poland’s frequent clashes with the EU since the ruling Law and Justice party came to power five years ago have always had the potential to trigger a debate about the country’s future in the bloc. As Warsaw tussles with Brussels over the EU’s €1.8tn budget and recovery package, such a discussion has now flared up.

Last week, after Poland and Hungary threatened to veto the package in protest against an EU plan to link access to funds to observance of the rule of law, the conservative magazine Do Rzeczy ran a striking front page: “We must tell the EU: Enough,” the cover thundered. “Polexit — we have a right to talk about it.”

Do Rzeczy’s editor, Pawel Lisicki, gave the rule-of-law spat and the “arbitrary expansion” of Brussels’ powers and its desire to judge member states as one reason for considering Polexit. But he also cited the EU’s “increasingly shameless attempt to force LGBTQ ideology on Poland,” underscoring the belief on the Polish right that the bloc’s liberal values also pose a more fundamental threat to Poland’s traditional Catholic identity.

Despite the upsurge in tensions, in the short term at least, there is little prospect of Poland leaving the EU. Opinion polls show more than 80 per cent of Poles want to remain — even more than the 78 per cent who voted to join in 2003. And even as Law and Justice (PiS) has clashed with Brussels, its MPs have insisted they have no desire to leave the bloc.

Do Rzeczy magazine’s front page from last week © Do Rzeczy

“[The idea of] Polexit is a complete absurdity, no political force that counts on the Polish scene has ever formulated such a demand, and the [ruling coalition] would be the last ones who would try to think or conduct a discourse in these terms,” Poland’s foreign minister, Zbigniew Rau, said the day after Do Rzeczy’s salvo.

How Poland’s debate will play out in the longer term is less clear. The freedoms that the EU gives Poles to study and work abroad remain hugely popular, as do the funds that have helped power Poland’s economy for the past 15 years. For many older Poles in particular, membership of the bloc also symbolises the country’s re-anchoring in the west after 40 years of Soviet domination.

However, PiS’s opponents fear that its clashes with Brussels and repeated sniping at the EU could eventually shift public opinion against the bloc, and one day take Poland down the same track as the UK to EU exit.

PiS and its allies have not made it hard for the opposition to make this argument. President Andrzej Duda has dismissed the EU as an “imaginary community of little consequence for us”, while prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently warned that the bloc risks becoming an “oligarchy” and that its plans to link funding to rule of law could lead to its “collapse”. Last week, the new education minister, Przemyslaw Czarnek branded the EU “the picture of a civilisation of death”.

“It’s time to sound the alarm, because what happened in the UK is starting to happen here,” Malgorzata Kidawa-Blonska, from the main opposition party, Civic Coalition wrote on Twitter, after Do Rzeczy published its Polexit front page. “We have to stop it in time.”

Observers on Poland’s right say that such claims are merely part of the opposition’s efforts to scare voters away from PiS. Instead, they argue the real risk to the EU comes from expansion of the powers of its institutions far beyond what was originally envisaged, and an increased willingness in Brussels to intervene in the domestic affairs of member states.

“If there is any danger of Polexit . . . it emanates from the actions of the EU institutions, and the opposition politicians who support them, and encourage the EU to play the role of a policeman who is supposed to correct the results of the elections in certain countries if those elections don’t bring results which suit the liberal elite which is dominant in the EU,” said Pawel Musialek, from the Klub Jagiellonski, a think-tank.

“If we treat the EU in that way, then this is a road towards Polexit at some point, and not just Polexit, but also the exit of other countries.”

Other observers play down the similarities between the trajectories of the UK and Poland. The two countries’ security and economic circumstances are markedly different. And most importantly, the UK has always had a far higher level of Euroscepticism than Poland.

“Even when no one was contesting [Britain’s membership of the EU] at the level of the political elites, there was a huge chunk of public opinion that simply never came to terms with [it]. Polish and British public opinion are in a radically different place,” said Aleks Szczerbiak, professor of politics at the UK’s University of Sussex.

“If anyone is in for [the Polexit project], they have got to be in for a long game. That’s what I think Do Rzeczy are trying to do. I think they are trying to plant the seeds of an intellectual narrative . . . [so] that [Polexit] is a respectable political option for people on the Polish political right to be considering. That’s where we are at the moment.”

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