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Krzysztof Blusz: a hard ‘pivot towards’ the West

For longer than a decade Poland was a ‘poster child’ of democratic transition and European enlargement. For Poles, EU accession was like ‘coming back home’: a ‘return to Europe’ by a nation that believed in the EU’s model of a market based liberal democracy, open society and values. Clearly, pivoting towards the West is proving as hard, if not harder, than pivoting away from the East.

Numerous polls conducted over the years have shown that support for EU membership has remained at over 70 per cent, peaking at an astonishing 89 per cent in 2014.  Yet, this support no longer appears to be unequivocal: according to the May 2016 Eurobarometer, as many as 37% of Poles believe the country would face a better future outside the EU.

The survey conducted by Chatham House and Kantar Public offers an interesting insight into changing Polish attitudes to the EU:  First, that their ‘love affair’ for the EU is marked by increased ambivalence; and second, that they increasingly diverge on some cultural and social attitudes from peers in other EU countries. These differences are important as ignoring them threatens European integration or undermines its axiological cohesion.

(…) sizeable segments of the Polish society still feel happy (31%), optimistic (26%) and confident (21%) about the EU

Despite the EU’s recent challenges, the survey results show sizeable segments of the Polish society still feel happy (31%), optimistic (26%) and confident (21%) about the EU – and that Poles are often more positive than their European counterparts. They admit that EU membership has been beneficial to people like them (49%). As a country that has been characterised by large waves of emigration, they also compliment the EU for what they see as its key achievements: removing internal borders (28%) and freedom to live and work across the EU (26%). They believe that the EU is fairly democratic (84%) and that richer Member States should financially support poorer ones (64%), hinting their support for a ‘transfer’ or ‘solidarity Union’ in the future. Over half advocate further enlargement of the EU, with almost 70 per regretting the UK’s decision to leave.

Nevertheless, ambivalence has crept in. Today, 43% want the EU to repatriate some of its powers to member states. Poles are also more likely to blame the EU for the ongoing refugee crises (35%), for bureaucracy and excessive legislation (36%) and for the perceived loss of national sovereignty (17%). In line with ‘teaching’ of the nationalist and ‘softly’ Eurosceptic Law and Justice (PiS) party which, since it was elected to government in 2015, has been vehemently opposing the refugee quota system put forward by the European Commission and agitating to limit the powers of EU institutions more broadly.

Contrary to many in Europe, 46% of Poles disagree that immigration is good for the country

The poll’s results also show the asymmetry in Polish attitudes towards perceived cultural and social change in Europe despite the fact that one in three respondents believes that member states share a common set of values. Contrary to many in Europe, 46% of Poles disagree that immigration is good for the country, with more than a half believing that no country should have to accept any refugees (double the European average). Sizeable parts of society consider immigrants to be a strain on the welfare system (49%), although interestingly they do not believe that they take away jobs from Polish citizens (42%). A large majority believes that the Muslim way of life is incompatible with the ‘European way of life’ (66%): out of all the country samples, a highest number of Poles (71%) submitted that immigration from Muslim countries should be stopped. These attitudes towards refugees, asylum seekers, immigration and multiculturalism in particular cast doubts on whether Poles ‘inhabit’ the same axiological ‘spaces’ that their European peers. What then, explains the hardening attitudes toward the EU and fears of cultural and social change?

A quarter of Poles grossly overestimate the number of foreigners living in Poland

Firstly, Poland is one of the most ethnically and religiously homogenous countries in the EU, with knowledge about immigration largely inadequate and stereotypes widespread. A quarter of Poles grossly overestimate the number of foreigners living in Poland, which is actually less than 1 per cent of total population. Less than a third of those surveyed admit coming into contact with a foreign national over the last year.

Secondly, there has been a surge in ‘nativism’ and xenophobia in recent years despite the relatively favourable economic conditions, moderate social inequalities and the absence of a major terrorist incident. Research by CBOS in 2016 shows that attitudes toward all 27 nations included in the study were substantially more negative by Poles than in 2010.

(…) right-wing media argued repeatedly that a massive inflow of Muslim immigrants would increases chances of terrorism and crime

Thirdly, the height of the refugee crisis coincided with the 2015 general election campaign, where the Law & Justice party and the supporting right-wing media argued repeatedly that a massive inflow of Muslim immigrants would increases chances of terrorism and crime,  with a complete disregard for facts and figures. At the outset of the electoral campaign in May that year, 21% of Poles were reported to be against accepting any refugees. By December that year, this figure had climbed to 53%. In response to the European Commission’s call for Poland to obey its relocation obligations under the 2015 EU agreement, conservative PM Beata Szydło stated in May 2017 that “there are no conditions in Poland to accept any refugees at the moment”. It is therefore hardly surprising that there is an unprecedented outburst of xenophobia and hostility towards immigrants and refugees across all segments of society. The refugees have become a villain of domestic politics not even having turned up at the country’s doorstep.

Crucially, EU membership is not only viewed as a political or economic choice but also one that is crucial to peoples’ identities. For many, the threats to social and cultural values they perceive today are perverse reminders of the reasons why they chose to ‘pivot away’ from the East at the end of the Cold War: Eastern-style political satrapies, disempowered societies and impoverished identities. These different sub-segments of Polish society have each their own ‘elite’ to follow, which R.Inglehart and P.Norris (2016) dubbed ‘the Populists’ and the ‘Cosmopolitan liberals’. Clearly, pivoting towards the West is proving as hard, if not harder, than pivoting away from the East.

By Krzysztof Blusz, Vice President, WiseEuropa


This article has been written as a comment to a pan-european reaserch of Chatham House, Royal Institute of International Affairs, The Future of Europe.