How will the EU’s ‘rule of law’ investigation affect Polish politics?

Aleks Szczerbiak

Poland’s right-wing government found itself on the defensive last month following the European Commission’s unprecedented decision to initiate an investigation under the EU’s ‘rule of law’ mechanism. An ongoing row with the Commission will be debilitating for the government which will have to spend valuable time and political capital defending its reputation in the European arena. However, the ruling party has shown that it can fight its corner and the Commission’s intervention could prove a double-edged sword for Poland’s opposition.

Law and Justice on the back-foot

The Polish government – led, since last October’s parliamentary election, by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – found itself on the back-foot last month following the European Commission’s surprising decision to initiate a preliminary investigation of the country under the EU’s so-called ‘rule of law’ monitoring mechanism. In 2014, the Union adopted the instrument, intended to address ‘systemic’ breaches of the rule of law and EU principles in any member state. It was meant to complement the so-called ‘nuclear option’ provision in Article 7 of the EU treaties that allows the European Council to impose sanctions on countries found to be in serious and persistent breach of fundamental EU values; in the worst-case scenario, suspending their voting rights. So far the Commission has agreed to the first step under the framework which involves undertaking a preliminary investigation of whether or not there are clear indications of a ‘systemic threat to the rule of law’ and initiating a dialogue with the member state concerned.

This unprecedented move came in response to concerns about recent actions by the Law and Justice government in relation to the membership and functioning of Poland’s constitutional tribunal, a powerful body that rules on the constitutionality of laws, and a new media law passed by the Polish parliament in January. The government’s critics accuse it of undermining the fundamentals of Polish democracy and the rule of law by: ignoring the tribunal’s rulings on the constitutiality of a law determining the body’s membership and trying to curb its power to place checks on the government, as well as placing public broadcasting under direct government control. These actions, they argue, represent attempts to interfere in the independence of the judiciary and put Law and Justice party loyalists in charge of state TV and radio.

Mrs Szydło’s counter-offensive

Law and Justice tried to regain the initiative by undertaking a (somewhat belated) public relations offensive aimed at improving Poland’s image within the EU institutions; re-assuring European leaders of the government’s broadly pro-EU attitude and that it was committed to upholding the rule of law and European values. The government’s supporters defended its actions as necessary measures to restore pluralism and balance to state institutions that they say had been colonised by supporters of, and milieu associated with, the centrist Civic Platform (PO) grouping, the previous governing party. More broadly, they argued that many Polish institutions have been expropriated by an extremely well-entrenched, and often deeply corrupt, post-communist elite and claimed that opposition to the government was being orchestrated by political forces unable to come to terms with their electoral defeat and vested interests hostile to its plans to radically reconstruct the state and introduce sweeping socio-economic reforms.

The centrepiece of Law and Justice’s counter-offensive was (what even the government’s critics admitted was) an effective intervention by prime minister Beata Szydło in a European Parliament (EP) plenary debate on the political situation in Poland held in the week after the Commission’s decision was announced. Although Mrs Szydło’s critics accused her of being evasive and misleading in responding to the Commission’s concerns, in a calm and conciliatory performance she tried to de-escalate the dispute: insisting that the Polish government was open to dialogue and would co-operate to patiently answer all of the criticisms. However, Mrs Szydło did not make any substantial concessions arguing that the constitutional tribunal dispute was an internal matter of a political rather than legal nature for Poland to solve on its own, and that the government’s changes to public broadcasting conformed to European standards. Earlier, she tried to undercut the Commission’s arguments by organising consultations with opposition leaders, for the first time since the new government took office last November, to find a compromise solution to the constitutional tribunal deadlock (unsuccessfully, as it turned out). The EP debate was also preceded by a visit to Brussels by Law and Justice-backed President Andrzej Duda who tried to lower the emotional temperature of the debate by meeting, and holding a (generally good natured) joint press conference, with EU Council President and former Civic Platform prime minister Donald Tusk.

Law and Justice was helped greatly by the weak performance in the EP debate of Civic Platform, now the main opposition grouping. The Polish opposition enjoys close links with the EU political establishment and Western opinion forming media, many of whom share their dislike of Law and Justice, so it was assumed that the EP debate would be favourable territory for the party. Indeed, during party leadership election hustings with local activists, Civic Platform’s new leader Grzegorz Schetyna (who was elected unopposed at the end of January) identified utilising the European arena as a key element of the opposition’s anti-government strategy. However, the party was divided over which tactics to pursue in the EP debate: anxious to capitalise on the government’s difficulties, but fearful of leaving itself open to criticism that it was weakening the country’s international standing by using a European forum to air domestic political grievances. In the event, except for one brief intervention from a Civic Platform MEP, the party effectively sat out the debate and ended up with the worst of both worlds: apparently supporting the Commission intervention but only half-heartedly. 

The EU intervention could drag on

In fact, the Commission has no powers to impose sanctions on Poland as the ‘rule of law’ framework only constitutes a political dialogue without any legally binding recommendations. These can only arise if the Commission proposes them to the EU Council under Article 7 where they require unanimity in one of the three stages of voting; and the Hungarian government has already made it clear that it will veto any attempt to introduce such measures. However, Mrs Szydło’s effective EP performance – and, more broadly, Law and Justice’s public relations counter-offensive – have not ended the conflict between the Commission and Poland. While the government is keen to move political debate back on to ‘normal’ socio-economic issues, where Law and Justice feels it is more in tune with public opinion than its liberal and centrist opponents, the Commission’s ‘rule of law’ investigation process could be a lengthy one, potentially forcing the Polish ruling party to spend valuable time and political capital responding to criticisms and defending its position in the European and international arena.

The Commission has said that it will return to the issue in March after the Venice Commission, an advisory body of the Council of Europe (a non-EU organisation which aims to uphold democracy and the rule of law), issues an opinion on Poland’s constitutional tribunal reforms. If the matter is not resolved by then, the Commission can issue a ‘rule of law recommendation’ giving Poland a specific time period to address the problems it has identified. If it still considers that the problem has not been dealt with to its satisfaction, the Commission can then recommend the invocation of Article 7. At the same time, the constitutional tribunal crisis looks set to rumble on with most of Poland’s opposition parties rejecting a government proposal to resolve the crisis by replacing the tribunal’s membership with eight judges nominated by the opposition and seven by the ruling party. It could also re-surface as a major issue of contention this month when the tribunal expects to rule on the constitutionality of amendments to the law determining its functioning passed by the Polish parliament at the end of December; which the government argues has already come into force and the tribunal has no power to review.

How will Poles react?

At this stage, it is difficult to tell how Poles will react to any further EU interventions. On the one hand, many of them are quite sensitive to international opinion, and understandably wary of anything that might lead to the country losing influence which could make it more difficult for Poland to promote its interests within the EU. Not only do Poles still support their country’s EU membership overwhelmingly, but one of Law and Justice’s opponents’ most effective criticisms of the previous 2005-7 party-led administration was that it had isolated Poland within EU institutions by alienating the main European powers, particularly Germany, and created the perception of the country as an unreliable and unstable EU member. This charge was strongly rejected by Law and Justice supporters who, for their part, argued that it was the previous Civic Platform-led government that failed to advance Poland’s interests effectively within the EU in spite of locating the country squarely within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ and enjoying extremely close relations with Berlin.

Moreover, notwithstanding the potential threat that isolation within the EU might pose to Poland’s tangible, material interests, at a more abstract level many Poles may feel particularly uneasy about the charge that the Law and Justice government is undermining so-called European values. This is because one of the key motivations for Poles voting overwhelmingly to join the EU in a 2003 accession referendum, and main reasons why levels of popular support for the country’s EU membership have remained so high, was the idea that joining the Union represented a historical and civilisational choice: a symbolic re-uniting of Poland with a Western international community of shared values that they had always considered themselves to be part of culturally and spiritually.

However, although most Poles remain broadly pro-EU, they also value their national independence and are likely to react instinctively against the idea of foreign interference in their domestic affairs. Moreover, as last month’s events have shown, Law and Justice will fight its corner in the European arena, so a heavy-handed EU intervention could simply allow the party to present itself as the defender of Polish sovereignty against unwarranted meddling by arrogant Brussels officials. Moreover, the idea of Polish EU membership as representing a ‘civilisational choice’ has been undermined in recent years by an increasing sense of cultural distinctiveness that many Poles feel towards Western Europe. This has been particularly evident in the sphere of moral-cultural values where Polish attachment to traditional morality and national identity stands in stark contrast to the socially liberal, cosmopolitan consensus that predominates among West European political and cultural elites.

This issue has surfaced recently in the contrasting reactions of Poles (and other Central Europeans) and West European political elites (although not necessarily their publics) to the European migration crisis. Poles are keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that many of them feel West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants who are seen as difficult to assimilate and embedding violent extremists within their communities. Indeed, one Law and Justice response to the Commission’s ‘rule of law’ investigation was that the EU should be concerning itself more with addressing the fall-out from the migration crisis than the political situation in Poland. In other words, it not as obvious as it once was – and, arguably, becoming less so – that the ‘civilizational choices’ that are being made by political and cultural elites in other parts of the continent are the same ones that Poles want to make. The ‘European card’ is, therefore, one that the government’s opponents need to play with great caution and could easily backfire on them.

Aleks Szczerbiak 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 Polish Politics Blog


What does a Law and Justice election victory mean for Europe?

Aleks Szczerbiak

Although the outcome of Poland’s parliamentary election was determined by domestic issues, the right-wing opposition’s apparent victory could herald a substantial shift in the country’s foreign policy, with major implications for its relations with the rest of Europe. However, divisions between Polish parties on international affairs are often an extension of domestic politics by other means and experience suggests that the new government may be more Eurosceptic in its rhetoric than in practice.

Mainstream versus ‘own stream’

The strategy of the outgoing government, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), was to locate Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ by presenting the country as a reliable and stable EU member state and adopting a positive and constructive approach towards the main European powers, especially Germany. By positioning Poland at the centre of the Union’s decision-making core it claimed that – in contrast to its predecessor, led by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – it was effective in promoting the country’s interests at the international level. The appointment in September 2014 of the then Polish prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk as President of the EU Council was presented as the crowning achievement of the previous government’s strategy of projecting Poland as a ‘model’ European state at the forefront of the EU integration project.

Law and Justice, the main opposition grouping in the previous parliament and which (although the official results have not yet been announced) looks set to head up the new government, also supports Polish EU membership. However, it is, in rhetorical terms at least, a broadly anti-federalist (verging on Eurosceptic) grouping committed to opposing further European integration and defending Polish sovereignty. This is especially the case in the moral-cultural sphere where it rejects what it sees as a hegemonic EU liberal-left consensus that undermines Poland’s traditional values and national identity. Law and Justice also argues that Poland needs be more robust and assertive in advancing its national interests. Rather than simply following European mainstream politics, which it sees as being driven by Germany, it says that the country needs to re-calibrate its relationships with the major EU powers and form its ‘own stream’ that can counter-balance their influence. Indeed, since the outbreak of the eurozone crisis the party has, if anything, articulated a more fundamental, principled critique of closer European integration, suggesting that the allocation of decision making powers between Brussels and member states should be re-visited to strengthen national sovereignty in areas such as climate policy where it claims EU policies are damaging Polish industry.

Scepticism about the euro

Law and Justice’s different approach towards European integration can be seen in the party’s attitude towards Polish adoption of the euro single currency. For sure, the outgoing Civic Platform-led government toned down its earlier enthusiasm for rapid euro adoption, stressing that it did not have a target date and that this would not occur in the immediate future. Nonetheless, in spite of the turbulence in the single currency area, it remained committed to fulfilling the criteria for eurozone accession as quickly as was realistically possible, as part of its long-term strategic goal for Poland to be at the centre of the EU’s decision-making core.

On the other hand, Law and Justice argues that the country should not adopt the euro until the Polish economy is more closely aligned with the rest of the EU and that any final decision should be approved by a referendum. Indeed, the party has increasingly given the impression that, with the eurozone’s huge internal problems, it could not envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the single currency. In this respect the new government will be in tune with Polish public opinion: while there is still overwhelming support for EU membership, most Poles also oppose their country joining the eurozone. During the election campaign, Law and Justice deputy leader and prime ministerial nominee Beata Szydło tried to tap into this by pledging that one of her first acts if elected will be to disband the office of government plenipotentiary responsible for Poland’s euro entry.

A more active Eastern policy?

The difference between Law and Justice and Civic Platform’s foreign policies can also be seen in their approaches to developing relations with Russia and Ukraine. Formally the two parties appear to be very similar: both supporting the idea of Poland being at the forefront of efforts to ensure that the international community adopts a robust response to Russian intervention – specifically, that EU sanctions are maintained and extended – and favouring a larger NATO presence in Central Europe. However, Law and Justice claims that the Civic Platform-led government was, notwithstanding occasional flushes of anti-Moscow rhetoric, constrained by its unwillingness to move too far beyond the EU consensus and act as a counter-balance to the major European powers which, it argues, are over-conciliatory towards Moscow. The result of this was, it argues, a failure to conduct a sufficiently active Eastern policy.

Law and Justice, therefore, wants to sharpen EU and NATO policy towards Russia. It is likely to try and use the 2016 NATO Warsaw summit to strengthen Poland’s defence infrastructure by securing a greater military presence in the country, preferably including permanently stationed US forces or military bases, and locating defensive weaponry on the Alliance’s Eastern flank; something opposed by Germany as too provocative towards Russia. A Law and Justice-led government will also try and achieve a stronger Polish presence in international negotiations on Ukraine’s future and policy towards Russia, and be more open to providing military aid to Kiev within the framework of the NATO alliance.

More broadly, Law and Justice has sought to contrast what it claims is its accurate diagnosis of Russian motives with the Civic Platform-led government’s earlier conciliatory approach towards Russian President Vladimir Putin which events in Ukraine have shown to be naïve and short-sighted. As part of this, the party has identified itself with the so-called ‘Jagiellonian policy’ promoted by the late Lech Kaczyński – twin brother of Law and Justice leader Jarosław Kaczyński, and who was the party-backed President between 2005-10 – which envisaged Poland playing the role of regional leader and building a broad military and political coalition of post-communist East-Central European states to counter Russian expansionism. The new government is likely to try and breathe new life into the Jagiellonian project by re-building alliances with other post-communist states, although this will not be easy given that some of them have even questioned the rationale behind existing EU sanctions against Russia.

Resisting EU migration quotas

More recently, Law and Justice’s different approach towards European integration could be seen in its attitudes towards the migration crisis. The outgoing Civic Platform-led government tried to strike a balance between competing domestic and international pressures. On the one hand, it was concerned to be seen to be responding to popular anxieties and defending Polish interests against EU institutions trying to impose migrants upon the country. Poland is an overwhelmingly Catholic country with very few ethnic minorities, and virtually none who are non-European, which has had little experience of the modern migrations that have transformed Western Europe. Poles are keen to avoid the kind of cultural and security problems that many of them feel West European countries have experienced through admitting large numbers of Muslim migrants, who are seen as difficult to assimilate and embedding violent extremists within their communities.

At the same time, the outgoing government came under growing pressure – both domestically from the liberal-left media and cultural establishment, and internationally from Brussels and other EU states – to play a greater role in helping to alleviate the crisis by participating in a Europe-wide burden sharing plan. As a consequence, having initially opposed the European Commission’s proposal for mandatory binding quotas for the relocation of migrants among EU states, following the wave of migration during the summer the Civic Platform administration changed its approach. Calling for what it termed ‘responsible solidarity’ with West European states, it said that Poland was ready to share the burden of the crisis by taking in larger numbers of migrants. The Civic Platform government was concerned that Poland was losing the public relations war in the Western media by coming across as one of the countries least sympathetic to the migrants’ plight. At the September EU summit, therefore, Warsaw went against its Central European allies from the ‘Visegrad’ countries (the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia) on this issue and voted for the EU distribution plan, agreeing to accept 4,500-5,000 additional migrants (increasing to around 7,000 in total next year).

Law and Justice, on the other hand, has argued that Poland should resist EU pressure to take in migrants and instead make policy decisions based on Polish interests. The party has warned that there is a serious danger of making the same mistakes as many West European countries, whereby a large number of migrants who do not respect Polish laws and customs end up imposing their way of life so that Poles become ‘guests in their own country’. It has cited examples of EU states with large Muslim communities where it claims that such a scenario is already unfolding. Law and Justice argued that rather than taking in migrants the EU should concentrate on providing aid to refugee camps in the Middle East and North African regions. Not surprisingly, therefore, it accused the Civic Platform government of betraying its Central European allies and violating national sovereignty by taking decisions under EU pressure that might undermine Polish culture and security without the agreement of the nation. It argued that the figure of around 7,000 migrants was unrealistic because family members would be able to join initial arrivals and that it was naïve to believe that this quota would not be used as a precedent to force Poland to take in additional migrants in the future. A Law and Justice-led government would, therefore, oppose Poland taking in additional migrants under the EU scheme and may even try to unpick the existing deal agreed to by its predecessor.

More Eurosceptic in rhetoric than practice?

However, although the issue of Polish-EU relations has been highly contested in recent years these divisions were often not about the substance of the European integration project as such. Rather, they were simply an extension of domestic politics by other means, with Law and Justice and Civic Platform treating the EU as a so-called ‘valence’ issue where they competed over which of them was most competent to pursue a shared goal; in this case, representing and advancing Polish national interests within the Union. In fact, although a Law and Justice-led administration would be more assertive in terms of trying to carve out an independent foreign policy and more Eurosceptic in tone than its predecessor, in practice it is not likely to take any radical steps against the EU integration process. It is worth bearing in mind that when it was last in government in 2005-7 the party’s rhetorical inter-governmentalism often gave way to a more integrationist approach in practice – for example, signing Poland up to the Lisbon treaty – and that it has never opposed Polish adoption of the euro in principle. Experience, therefore, suggests that a Law and Justice government would probably be more Eurosceptic in its rhetoric than in practice.

Aleks Szczerbiak 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:

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 ( 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: