How salient was the European issue in Polish politics?

Given that foreign affairs rarely impact upon national politics, Europe had a surprisingly high profile in Polish politics last year. This was partly as a ‘valence’ issue where parties competed over which of them was the most competent to advance national interests within the EU. However, to some extent it also emerged as a substantial issue in its own right with parties presenting different visions of the future of the European integration project and Poland’s role within it. Whether Europe becomes a significant dimension of party competition in this year’s presidential and parliamentary election depends as much, if not more, upon developments on the international scene as on domestic factors.

An issue in its own right?

The issue of Poland-EU relations was highly contested in recent years by the two main parties: the centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently the main governing party, and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping. However, these divisions were often not over the future of the European integration project as such. Rather they were subsumed within domestic politics, with the two parties treating relations with the EU as a so-called ‘valence’ issue where they competed over which was most competent to pursue a shared goal – in this case, representing and advancing Polish national interests within the EU.

However, there was also some evidence that, particularly since the outbreak of the Eurozone crisis, the Polish debate on Europe was becoming more about the substance of European integration than simply an extension of domestic politics by other means. While Civic Platform supported closer German-led integration within the EU, Law and Justice started to articulate a more fundamental, principled critique of the ruling party’s support for deeper European integration. For example, it increasingly gave the impression that the party could not envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the euro; although it is worth bearing in mind that when the party was in government in 2005-7 Law and Justice’s rhetorical Euroscepticism often gave way to a more integrationist approach.

A surprisingly ‘European’ EP election

Moreover, the May European Parliament (EP) election, the biggest political event during the first half of 2014, might also have been expected to raise the profile of the EU issue in Polish politics. However, although the EP election was part of a Europe-wide electoral process to an EU institution, experience suggested that, like all previous Polish elections, it would be dominated by domestic rather than European or other international issues, except when the latter were framed as valence issues. Important as it would be as a test of party strength, most commentators assumed that the EP poll would simply be another typical ‘second order’ national election that voters would use as an opportunity to cast a cost-free, mid-term protest vote against the governing party which, at the start of 2014, was running around 5-10% behind Law and Justice in the polls.

In fact, the dynamics of the EP poll were transformed and it turned out to be a surprisingly ‘European’ election because of the escalation of the Ukrainian crisis. This was to dominate the campaign and re-configure patterns of support for the two main parties, with Civic Platform finishing narrowly ahead on 32.1% of the vote and Law and Justice on 31.8%. To some extent, Europe was once again used as a valence issue with the two main parties competing over the shared objective of persuading the EU to develop a robust response to the crisis. Civic Platform leader and prime minister Donald Tusk quickly recognised that the threat of armed conflict on Poland’s border would change voters’ priorities radically and re-calibrated the Civic Platform EP campaign accordingly. The ruling party tried to use events in Ukraine to highlight its claim that, in contrast to its Law and Justice-led predecessor, the Civic Platform government’s approach of locating Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ was effective in promoting Poland’s interests at the international level. It tried to position the Tusk administration as a key player in determining the European and international response to the crisis, mobilising the EU and its allies to react to the Russian threat in a decisive manner.

The ruling party made a similar argument when, at the end of August, Mr Tusk was unexpectedly appointed as the next President of the EU Council, presenting it as a vindication of the government’s broader strategy of adopting a positive and constructive approach towards Warsaw’s main EU allies. Indeed, for many commentators sympathetic to the government, Mr Tusk’s appointment was the crowning achievement of its attempts to project Poland as a ‘model’ European at the forefront of the EU integration project. For its part, while congratulating Mr Tusk on his appointment, Law and Justice argued that such symbolic triumphs were meaningless if they did not lead to concrete policy gains for Poland. However, Mr Tusk’s appointment received extremely positive publicity and Civic Platform was able to present it as a great success to a Polish public which was still overwhelmingly pro-EU (an October 2014 survey by the CBOS polling agency found that 84% of respondents supported Polish EU membership while only 11% were against) and proud of the appointment of Poles to any senior European posts, however symbolic.

However, Civic Platform also tried to link its EP campaigning on the Ukrainian issue to more substantive debates on the future of the European integration project. The ruling party contrasted its own strongly pro-EU stance with Law and Justice’s apparent Euroscepticism, arguing that that the latter threatened Poland’s security which depended upon the country’s position within a politically and economically integrated EU that was capable of reacting swiftly and effectively to external threats. It claimed that Eurosceptic parties like Law and Justice played into Russia’s hands by encouraging the major European powers to develop bi-lateral relations with Moscow based on their narrow, short-term national interests that often conflicted with Poland’s, rather than adopt a common EU stance.

Law and Justice counter-attacked by contrasting what it claimed was its accurate diagnosis of Russian motives and more assertive Eastern policy with Mr Tusk’s apparently naïve, short-sighted and over-conciliatory approach towards Moscow. Law and Justice leaders pointed out that it had consistently warned of how dangerous Russian President Vladimir Putin was and argued that, rather than simply relying on developing close relations with the major EU powers, Poland had to develop a so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’: playing the role of regional leader and building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist states to counter Russian expansionism.

A radical Eurosceptic challenger emerges

The EP election also saw the sudden emergence of a new Eurosceptic challenger party, the Congress of the New Right (KPN), which came from nowhere to finish fourth securing 7.2% of votes and winning 4 out of the country’s 51 MEPs. Formed in March 2011, the Congress was the latest project of Janusz Korwin-Mikke, one of its new MEPs and a veteran eccentric of the political scene who contested every national election since the collapse of communism in 1989 and was notorious for having articulated some of the most controversial views in Polish politics. The core of the party’s programme, and main driver of its support, was its radical economic liberalism, but it was also a socially conservative and strongly Eurosceptic party. The party opposed Polish EU membership and, during the EP campaign, Mr Korwin-Mikke argued that half of the current European Commissioners should be arrested, and promised to ‘blow up the EU from within’ turning the European institutions into a brothel! Ironically, this was actually further evidence of the ‘Europeanisation’ of the EP poll, in the sense that the party sought to mobilise support on the basis of outright rejection of the EU project.

For sure, there were other factors at work here and, to some extent, this was simply a protest vote with the New Right emerging as the most attractive repository for those looking for a radical alternative to the political establishment, particularly among younger voters and what some sociologists termed the ‘frustrated intelligentsia’. Such protest voters often play a disproportionate role in ‘second order’ elections such as EP polls where turnout is traditionally much lower than in national elections. Mr Korwin-Mikke was able to mobilise his relatively small but extremely loyal following who, in the context of a 22.7% turnout in Poland (the third lowest among the 28-member EU bloc and much lower than the 47.5% average recorded in post-1989 Polish parliamentary elections), provided the Congress with a respectable EP election result. However, attitudes towards the European project were definitely an element of the Congress’s appeal and its surge suggested that high levels of support for Polish EU membership might be more fragile than polls suggest. Many of the New Right’s supporters saw the EU as the embodiment of a stifling bureaucracy and political and cultural oppression rather than symbolising the civilisational progress and socio-economic modernisation and solidarity that Poles were promised at the time of accession.

Moreover, although Mr Korwin-Mikke was 72-years-old, the Congress enjoyed particularly high levels of support among younger voters. According to an exit poll conducted by the Ipsos agency, 28.5% of 18-25 year-olds voted for the New Right, more than for any other party, comprising half of its supporters. Some sociologists argued that many of these voters were drawn from what commentators refer to as ‘Generation Y’: the large numbers of young and fairly well-educated unemployed in Poland who live at home with their parents and are frustrated that the country has not developed more rapidly, with an apparent ‘glass ceiling’ of vested interests and corrupt networks stifling their opportunities. One of the main reasons for continuing high levels of Polish support for the EU was the fact that membership of the Union gave Poles the opportunity to secure access to West European labour markets. However, many of this younger, post-enlargement generation either increasingly took this benefit of EU membership for granted or actually perceived it as a sign of failure, frustrated by what they saw as an invidious choice between moving to take jobs abroad that fell well short of their abilities and aspirations, or remaining in a country which they felt offered them few prospects for the future.

An election issue in 2015?

The extent to which Europe might be an issue in the two big electoral contests that will dominate Polish politics in 2015, the summer presidential and autumn parliamentary polls, depends largely on international developments. In 2014, it was the Ukrainian conflict, and later Mr Tusk’s appointment to the EU presidency, that, unusually, moved foreign affairs and Poland-EU relations to the top of the political agenda. It would require similarly extraordinary events to do the same in 2015, although it is quite possible that the Ukrainian conflict could escalate once again or the Eurozone crisis re-emerges as an issue.

There could also be domestic factors that move the European issue up the political agenda. Given the ongoing risk of Eurozone turbulence and increasing public hostility to Polish adoption of the single currency (an October 2014 CBOS survey found only 24% of respondents in favour and 68% against), the government has chosen to downplay the issue. However, Civic Platform-backed President Bronisław Komorowski remains an enthusiastic supporter of Polish accession to the Eurozone, seeing it as essential for Poland to be part of the EU’s decision-making core, and he may decide to give the issue a higher profile in the presidential campaign. The presence of Mr Korwin-Mikke and his party in the presidential and parliamentary elections also means that debates about the future of European integration might emerge as, at the very least, a secondary issue. However, if Europe is salient the most likely scenario is that it is, once again, likely to be a valence issue subsumed within domestic politics.

Aleks Szczerbiak (a.a.szczerbiak@sussex.ac.uk) is Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies at the University of Sussex and Co-Convenor of the European Parties Elections and Referendums Network (EPERN). He blogs regularly about developments on the Polish political scene at: http://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/.

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