How the Changes in Poland Are Changing Europe

15. 3. 2017

The situation in Poland is a European norm, a symptom of a wider European development, rather than an exception.

When in mid-January the European Commission launched the procedure for monitoring compliance with the rule of law against Poland, and just a few days later the European Parliament held a debate on the political situation in Poland after the autumn elections, there were comments saying that Poland went the way of Orbán’s Hungary. It is only partly true. Orbán’s Hungary may serve as a reference point for Warsaw only in the context of domestic reforms, but not foreign policy. More importantly, however, focusing attention on Orbán and Kaczyński themselves, on Fidesz and Law and Justice, on personal, partisan, and regional alliances between Budapest and Warsaw, contrasted with the European Union and regarded as a rebellion against the sovereignty of Brussels and the EU rules, overshadows the fundamental problem—the nature of changes which the EU as a whole is undergoing today.

After the double election victory in the autumn of last year, Law and Justice (PiS), the party of Jarosław Kaczyński, assumed full power in Poland—it has its president and a parliamentary majority. Although in contrast to Hungary it is not a constitutional majority, the current political advantage of Law and Justice is without precedent in the history of Polish democracy after 1989. It had become possible thanks to the support of the majority of voters, who endorsed radical changes in Poland by voting not only for PiS, but also for two new parties, Kukiz’15 and This attitude is confirmed by opinion polls showing that never before in the last quarter century such an overwhelming majority of Poles expected fundamental changes in the political system.

The key to understanding these sentiments is the view that without a profound reform of government the Poles will not be able to achieve two crucial goals in the near future: maintaining a continued social and economic development and guaranteeing security, as it will become impossible. And this belief, which prompted Polish voters to support political change and brought Law and Justice an unprecedented advantage, means that the current situation in Poland is a European norm, a symptom of a wider European development, rather than an exception. In many EU countries we are now witnessing an accelerating dynamics of democratic change. This is often accompanied by a greater mobilization of national electorates. Such concepts as sovereignty, nation, or borders, until recently suppressed from public life, are coming back to the mainstream of democratic debate. One could even venture a claim that in many EU countries the next wave of democratization has been rising, but in stark contrast to what such people as Jürgen Habermas desired, it does not lead towards an emergence of a European demos. This wave flows in the opposite direction, and drives democratic constituencies to pressing their governments with often legitimate demands to restore social and economic solidarity and protection. They often take the form of populist movements, in the sphere of international policy they usually tend towards a national isolationism or selfishness, but above all they express a fundamental lack of trust in the currently functioning forms of European integration, representative institutions, and politicians. This is hardly surprising.

The accelerated dynamics of democratic changes in the countries of the European Union results from its increasing weakness. For at least a couple of decades we have been observing a process of gradual degradation of the EU integration mechanism. It does not yet assume the proportions of a systemic crisis—that is one threatening the Union as a whole, undermining its ability of further functioning. So the brilliant analogies with the collapse of the Western Roman Empire which we sometimes hear, also from leaders of Western European countries (the Dutch Prime Minister is a recent example), are premature. However, the process of degradation is serious, for what we are seeing is an increasingly visible synergy of various crises, which at an unfavorable point may start a snowball of destruction. I mean here the financial crisis, the geopolitical crisis in Eastern Europe (Russia), the security crisis in the Mediterranean and the migration crisis connected with it, the probability of Brexit, and finally the crisis of German leadership in Europe, which turned out to be a much too optimistic an expectation. These numerous crises overlap and interact, producing contradictory and wrong reactions. Today’s EU is an impressive institutional and legal creation, the result of historic efforts undertaken in Europe since the end of World War II, but in an hour of a really difficult test, it proves to be surprisingly helpless and unable to act. The EU is losing much of its old glamour, attraction, and power of persuasion, for in a period of a synergy of crises it does not give a credible answer to one question, fundamental for the democratic societies of Europe—how to guarantee growth and security in uncertain times.

The conditions for economic and social growth and for security are now created on the level of domestic policy of the member states, rather than within EU institutions and supranational integration. Such are the lessons which the democratic societies of Europe have drawn from the euro crisis and the Schengen Zone crisis. Perhaps the negative experiences of the crises produced wrong conclusions, perhaps they will bring another round of disappointments, perhaps this is a blind alley, which European societies are plunging into due to their lack of faith in the ability of European institutions and politicians to undertake effective action. The European Union has failed and must regain its credibility. Unfortunately, as it still remains largely a project of the elites, Brussels is hardly aware of how profound the crisis of trust in the Union is. The helplessness of EU officers and politicians is usually covered with the slogan “more Europe.” And this slogan is completely divorced from reality and contrary to the sentiments prevailing in most member states.

The increasing dynamics of democratic change in the member states is a direct expression of a loss of dynamics of European integration, but also a sign of serious erosion of faith in the stability and prospects of the Western model of democratic capitalism. The financial crisis has undermined many of the principles on which the West and their liberal order was based: that the market is rational, that deregulation is a remedy for all ills, that the government should be curtailed and deprived of political significance, that it is better when the democratic community stays home focused on professional and private life, that individualism is the key to development, that growth will be uninterrupted if governments do not interfere with the markets, that growth reduces inequalities, and that every successive generation will have a better life than the previous one. This was the great promise of the Western development model, which said that the expectations of democratic societies and the dynamics of the markets were compatible with each other, if only we would all subscribe to a set of neoliberal rules. Today no one believes in that any longer, neither in the countries of the European South, nor in the countries which have undergone the process of post-communist transition, nor in the heart of old continental Europe. Thus the EU ceased to be a well-oiled mechanism of rules and institutions, and on a deeper level a model which allowed European societies to believe that the future had the shape of a comprehensible, positive goal to which we were all aspiring.

In the case of Central European countries there is an added feature explaining the increased dynamics of internal democratic changes— the model of independent growth within the post-communist transition has been exhausted. The transformation carried out under the supervision of international institutions, based on privatization and FDI, treated as a modernizing project executed as part of European integration (EU enlargement), and the neoliberal vision of the global world—such a transformation has spent its possibilities, lost social legitimacy and support of the political majority. Today the dominant political agenda in Poland is creating our own pro-development mechanism, entering the part of independent growth, creating our own social and economic model, shedding the role of a periphery dependent on stronger states. To fulfil this agenda, a strong parliamentary majority and social support are needed—and PiS achieved that after the last elections. Consequently, it will aim at systemic, institutional modifications in order to increase its range of political actions for change.

This inevitably means contesting the current model of neoliberal transformation and open questioning of some of its dogmas: for example, not every foreign investment is good, foreign capital may not be privileged (e.g. by the tax system), the labor market must be adjusted to social needs, and many others. It also means that, when looking for its own social and economic model, the Polish government will sometimes enter a collision course with solutions preferred by Brussels or by other countries. The path of independent development will be created in some conflict with the current practice developed during the transition and with various EU interests. It is a great responsibility of the new Polish government that, when striving for its goal, it should not turn the EU into an enemy, both in its policy and in social perception; and it also must not undermine the geopolitical foundations of Polish security—Poland’s permanent attachment to the West.

Brussels in its turn should not treat Poland as an exception to the rule. The increased dynamics of domestic democratic changes is by no means a specifically Polish feature, but a perceived need in many EU countries, which have to cope with the consequences of the synergy of many crises. If the European institutions will want to forcibly hold back this dynamics in the name of dogmas or inefficient procedures, the EU may simply capsize.

Marek Cichocki

Research Director of the Natolin European Centre in Warsaw as well as Editor-in-chief of the magazine New Europe. Natolin Review. From 2007 to 2010 Advisor to the President of the Republic of Poland and Sherpa for the negotiations of the Lisbon Treaty. Since 2003 he is also publisher and Editor-in-chief of the Teologia Polityczna yearly. Permanent Professor in the Institute of Applied Social Sciences at the University of Warsaw.

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