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Open Europe’s Marcus Cadier looks ahead to the European Parliament election campaign in Poland, where the European issue has been playing an important role in an emerging politics of identity and values.
3 May 2019
There is generally a fundamental consensus in Poland that EU membership is a good thing but that reform is needed, while membership of the Single Currency is off the table. According to a survey conducted last year, 92% of the Polish population wanted to remain in the EU, while 77% wanted to keep the national currency rather than switching to the Euro. Nevertheless, the European issue has become something of a political football alongside other domestic issues, which are driving social matters and identity politics to the fore.
The coming EU election in May will establish which parties are gaining momentum for the general election in Poland later this year. The ruling party in Poland is the Law and Justice party (PiS), which in recent years has been involved in a fierce argument with the EU about domestic reforms to its judiciary. The European Commission recently launched the latest in a series of “infringement procedures” against the country, criticising the proposed changes which would potentially subject judges to disciplinary proceedings for the content of their judicial decisions. This conflict has been used by the Polish opposition to criticise PiS, arguing that their domestic reforms have weakened Poland’s relationship with the EU and its powerful neighbour Germany, and painting the party as highly Eurosceptic in doing so. Partly as a consequence of this, PiS has tried to tone down its disputes with the EU ahead of the coming elections by withdrawing some of the most contested elements of its judicial reform programme.
PiS currently holds 234 out of 460 seats in the Polish parliament. The right-wing party is socially conservative and has expressed a tough stance on immigration, having previously used images of migrants in western Europe in its campaign literature as a warning of an imminent “Muslim invasion.” The party has also spoken out against the provision of non-discrimination and same-sex education in schools, following Warsaw mayor Rafał Trzaskowski’s publication of a 12-point charter pledging support for the city’s LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.
PiS has a broadly soft Eurosceptic stance, calling for decentralisation of powers to the member states and voicing opposition to a further extension of EU powers. The dominant view within the party is that it is in Poland’s interests to reform the EU from within rather than leaving it. PiS leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński has called for the EU’s energy and climate package to be renegotiated and has also expressed strong opposition to the idea that the EU should be able to redistribute refugees amongst its member states. PiS are currently members of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group, but the future of the group remains unclear, as does PiS’ membership of it. PiS has stated that the recently established right-wing populist EU group launched by Italian Lega Party leader Matteo Salvini will not be an option, at least not until the elections are over.
The second largest party in Poland, Civic Platform (PO), currently holds 145 seats in parliament. The party is characterised by centre-right policies with a liberal-conservative ideology. The party has a positive stance on EU membership and emphasises that it has provided “record-breaking” structural funds towards the development of Poland. While they maintain that Polish interests need to be protected and the union needs reform, they also say that it is a good platform for pursuing those interests. PO argues that PiS’s policies have weakened Poland’s relationship with Brussels, France and Germany. PO are members of European People’s Party (EPP). As described by Professor Aleks Szczerbiak, PO was initially opposed to migration burden-sharing between EU member states, but changed their stance following the migration crisis of 2015 and aligned with Brussels, a move which was was heavily criticised by PiS.
Earlier this year, PO, the Polish People’s Party (PSL) and the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), along with a series of minor parties, formed the European Coalition, which will fight this election as an alliance. Civic Platform is by far the largest member of the coalition as they received 19 seats in the European Parliament in 2014, followed by SLD (5 seats) and PSL (4 seats). The other 9 parties in the coalition currently have zero seats. Although in favour of EU reform, the coalition is much less sceptical of the EU than Law and Justice. Instead, they urge Poles to vote for them so that they may rebuild Poland’s relationship with the EU.
Spring is a political party that was established in February this year and has quickly done well in polling, primarily gaining support from anti-establishment voters and liberals who previously supported Civic Platform. Currently estimated to receive five seats in the European Parliament, the party was launched as a response to the conservative political establishment by Robert Biedron, a homosexual atheist and former mayor of the northern town Slupsk. Their policies include increasing social spending, relaxing Poland’s strict abortion regulations and introducing compulsory six-week paternity leave. The party also has a progressive EU agenda, wanting to create an EU fund for free media, a European Charter of Women’s Rights and a system of EU subsidies for healthcare. They also want a regulatory assessment system which EU laws would have to pass before being implemented.
In addition to the European Coalition, there is another coalition running in the EP election called Confederation. The group consists of Liberty, Federation for the Republic, the Party for Drivers and the National Movement. The coalition stands out as it is characterised by a hard-Eurosceptic policy platform, campaigning to leave the EU.
Lastly, Paweł Kukiz’s Movement (K15), formed in 2015, is not officially a political party. There is no requirement to be a registered political party to run in Polish elections; instead, one can register for an election as a civic committee and contest elections that way. K15 are a far-right populist group that centres around ideas of nationalism. Characterised as anti-establishment, K15 has an agenda that includes abolishing political cabinets in ministries and local governments. Their EU platform is much along the same lines, arguing that Germany and France are transforming the union into an “imperialist super state” in an attempt to completely remove sovereignty of member states. K15 does not affiliate with any European party group. Paweł Kukiz came third in the first round of presidential election in 2015.
The election is currently a close-run two-horse race. Law and Justice currently holds 19 seats in the EP and are estimated to increase their vote share by 8.1%, receiving a total of 22 seats. Meanwhile, the European Coalition is estimated to win 20 seats, but the campaign could see these numbers change. Of the smaller parties, Spring is estimated to win four seats, the Confederation group three seats, and K15 two seats.
Domestic issues such as migration (including how this plays out in Brussels) and same-sex education are highly salient in the current Polish debate, manifested as a fight over identity and values of liberalism and conservatism. The liberal challenger party Spring has been successful in highlighting many of these issues, especially given that the party was only formed earlier this year. Its main challenge will be to cut through the bipolar political system, and it remains to be seen whether its present success will last.
Although the European Coalition has attempted to paint PiS as anti-EU, there is a fundamental consensus between the two blocs in being pro-membership while being opposed to Eurozone membership. Viewed from the outside, the European question in Polish politics has become a question of emphasis and reflective of a wider dispute over identity and values. Law and Justice’s dispute with Brussels underscores this and has been seized upon by Civic Platform as an opportunity to differentiate itself, alongside other issues such as the conflict between the EU and PiS about migration burden-sharing. The fact that Civic Platform will lead the “European Coalition” is more significant for what it says about domestic disputes rather any debate about the fundamental tenets of Poland’s EU membership.