With Poland going to the polls on 15 October, Aleks Szczerbiak highlights that EU-related issues have barely featured in the campaign, despite clashes with the EU political establishment having been one of the defining features of Poland’s right-wing Law and Justice party’s time in office. He suggests that, if re-elected, Law and Justice will be hoping to normalise these relations, while the opposition parties are pledged to return Poland to the ‘European mainstream’.
On 15 October Poland will hold a critical and closely fought parliamentary election. As the EU’s fifth largest member state, and an increasingly important regional actor, the election outcome will have important implications for both Polish and European politics more generally.
Clashes with the EU political establishment have been one of the defining features of the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party time in office since it was elected in 2015. The party promised to break with its predecessors’ policy of trying to exert EU influence by aligning Poland with the so-called ‘European mainstream’ and developing close links with the main European powers, especially Germany. Law and Justice argued that Poland and Germany’s interests often clashed, and that Warsaw needed to develop adopt a more autonomous EU policy.
The EU political establishment also shares the Polish opposition’s critique of Law and Justice’s judicial reforms as undermining democracy and the ‘rule of law’. A string of unfavourable EU Court of Justice rulings have called upon Warsaw to reverse its reforms, and the European Commission is withholding Poland’s share of the Union’s coronavirus recovery fund. Law and Justice strongly rejects these accusations and accuses the EU institutions of politically motivated double standards and exceeding their treaty powers.
Opinion polls suggest that Law and Justice will still emerge as the largest party after the October election but fall short of retaining its parliamentary majority. The main opposition grouping is the liberal-centrist Civic Platform (PO), Poland’s governing party between 2007-15, led by Donald Tusk, who was prime minister in 2007-14 and European Council President 2014-2019.
However, at the moment most polls also show that the combined vote share of the three opposition groupings would not be enough to secure a parliamentary majority. One of them – the eclectic ‘Third Way’ (Trzecia Droga), comprising a long-standing agrarian party and new liberal-centrist formation led by TV personality-turned-politician Szymon Hołownia, is hovering dangerously close to the 8% parliamentary representation threshold for electoral coalitions.
In fact, the question of Poland’s role as an EU member has not featured much in the campaign. The radical right free-market and Confederation (Konfederacja) – which most polls suggest will hold the balance of power in the new parliament – has toned down its radical Euroscepticism, knowing that the overwhelming majority of Poles appear to support the country’s EU membership. Rather it has focused on specific areas of EU policy that it disagrees with, such as climate policy.
Even the EU coronavirus funding issue has not, despite the opposition’s best efforts, been especially salient. Those for whom the issue matters will vote for the opposition parties anyway, while Law and Justice supporters largely came to terms with the fact that Poland was unlikely to receive this money ahead of the election – and feel that the Commission will end up releasing the funds anyway.
Two specific EU-related issues have featured in the campaign. Firstly, the EU’s September decision not to extend its embargo on imports of Ukrainian grain. This was introduced originally after cheap Ukrainian agricultural produce was re-routed through Eastern Europe due to the Russian blockade of Black Sea ports. Much of this ended up staying in Poland which, together with last year’s bumper harvest, caused Polish farmers to make huge losses.
Farmers vote overwhelmingly for Law and Justice and are a crucial element of the party’s support base. So, it was vital that the party was seen to be defending their interests, not least because Law and Justice wanted to neutralise attacks from the Confederation that, in developing solidarity with Ukraine, the government had often failed to properly stand up for Polish national interests. As a consequence, Warsaw introduced a unilateral ban on imports of grain and several other agricultural products from Ukraine.
The second EU-related issue to feature in the campaign has been the Union’s proposed new ‘migration pact’, which will require member states that are less vulnerable to ‘irregular’ migrants crossing their border to either take in a minimum relocation quota or make ‘solidarity’ payments of 22,000 Euros per migrant not accepted.
Poles are overwhelmingly opposed to migrant relocation quotas and Law and Justice was hoping to use the pact to revive an issue around which it had mobilised successfully in the run-up to the 2015 parliamentary election at the peak of that year’s European migration crisis. Rejection of the pact is one of four questions in multiple referendums that Law and Justice has called to coincide with polling day.
However, the migration issue has proved to be something of a double-edged sword for Law and Justice. A corruption scandal relating to the allocation of work visas has led to the resignation of a deputy foreign office minister and criminal charges being brought against several other officials. This has allowed Civic Platform to try and turn the tables on Law and Justice and highlight the fact that the government has overseen Poland’s largest ever wave of immigration, including many more workers from countries outside Europe than the EU was planning to transfer, and suggest that many of these work visas may have been obtained fraudulently.
A series of further developments, such as Germany introducing additional checks on its border with Poland, have meant that migration has, somewhat unexpectedly, become a dominant issue during the closing stages of the campaign. In fact, Law and Justice still feels that it will benefit from this because it has more credibility on the issue and its salience has prevented others that are more problematic for the governing party, such as economic insecurity and falling living standards, from being more prominent.
Law and Justice is hoping that if it is re-elected for an unprecedented third term this will encourage the EU political establishment to come to terms with a Polish government with a renewed democratic mandate and put contentious issues, such as ‘rule of law’ compliance, on the backburner. It thereby hopes to de-couple such disagreements from its efforts to develop closer strategic co-operation and economic ties on day-to-day bread-and-butter policy issues.
On the other hand, a new government led by the current opposition parties would try and re-build relations with the EU political establishment, especially Berlin, and draw Poland back into the European ‘mainstream’. However, apart from arguing that EU coronavirus funds will be unfrozen on the day that they take office, Civic Platform has been vague about what this would mean for Poland’s approach to contentious EU issues such as the EU migration pact on which it has (as Law and Justice continually points out) avoided taking a clear stance.
By Aleks Szczerbiak, Professor of Politics, University of Sussex.