Before Poland’s parliamentary elections in October last year, many liberal-thinking Poles had been worrying what the looming victory of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s far-right Law and Justice (PiS) could mean for their country. Few had imagined then that PiS’ victory would turn Poland, one of Europe’s few shining economic successes, into a troublemaker EU member accused of undermining democracy in just a few weeks.
PiS’ comeback has been swift and focused on concentrating as much power in key institutions as possible. Prime Minister Beata Szydlo (although it is clear to everyone that the party is in fact steered by Jaroslaw Kaczynski) was quick to weaken the basic functions of the Constitutional Court, including its capacity to strike down legislation. The newly elected government moreover purged the management of public media and openly acknowledged that Hungary’s controversial Prime Minister Viktor Orban was its role model.
What is, however, even more striking is the fact that vulgarism and lack of manners can become a new political mainstream almost overnight, seemingly unnoticed by large parts of the population. Since Law and Justice party took over, its members and sympathizers have attacked virtually every aspect of what used to be the basis of Poland’s success – its ties with Germany, its respected position in the European Union, its political stance towards Russia. In contrast, Mr Kaczynski actually shows off his eccentric anti-German foreign policy views and does not shun away from using hate speech when talking about migrants, saying, for example, they carry “various diseases”.
It seems that no one has reminded the Poles, and especially the young ones, that their country is the biggest beneficiary of EU funding. In 2014-2020 funding window, Poland will receive 77.6 billion euros, which is the highest amount in the block. In 2013, for example, what Poland got from the EU was roughly three times more than its national contribution. Since its accession in 2004, the EU cash has helped the country to develop its countryside, help farmers use new technologies, build many airports or museums (such as Copernicus Science Center in Warsaw, which is the second most popular science museum in Europe).
Apart from obvious money matters, there are many benefits that cannot be measured, such as peace, political stability, security and freedom to live, study and work anywhere in the EU. While many would take the first items on the list – such as stability, peace and security – for granted, the latest developments in the EU neighborhood only highlight the fact that these are not such obvious things, as some might be inclined think. Moreover, when it comes to free movement of people, the Poles have benefitted from the EU immensely, and no Polish government – not even a far-right one – should forget about it. It is estimated that since 2004, about 2 million Poles have left the country. In absolute terms, Poland is among top five sending countries for Erasmus programs. Every year, thousands of young Poles have a chance to study in another EU country.
The latest political developments in Poland are, in my opinion, among the saddest things that have happened to Central Europe recently. This latest political mayhem unfolding in Poland has demonstrated that vulgarism, political incorrectness and illiberal and anti-democratic practices can spread basically overnight even in a country of almost 40 million. Let’s not forget that Poland is the EU’s sixth biggest economy that borders with Russia and that has a major say when it comes to such important issues as climate policy. What is worse, Poland’s course of action under this new right-wing regime has also demonstrated that the populist politics of fear and hatred in Hungary and a to a lesser extent in Slovakia can thrive also in a big and traditionally pro-Western country whose voice actually matters even in the Brussels corridors of power.