Why are young progressives in Poland growing disillusioned with the European Union? In December of last year, the Union was plunged into yet another crisis when Poland and Hungary vetoed the EU budget and coronavirus recovery fund. This was done in response to a proposed mechanism which sought to make access to EU funds conditional upon adherence to the rule of law. The “rule of law conditionality” was seen as aimed specifically at member states such as Poland and Hungary, whose governments have a history of systematically breaching the rule of law. A compromise was reached, with both Poland and Hungary agreeing to drop their veto in exchange for the opportunity to challenge the “rule of law conditionality” in the European Court of Justice (ECJ). This gives both governments at least two years during which the already watered-down provisions can be challenged and therefore rendered null and void. Young progressives in Poland see this as another symptom of a weak European Union meant to protect them from abuses of power, and there are signs this could be costly for the EU.
EU lacking assertion against authoritarian regimes
The EU has long come under criticism for not being assertive enough in its stance against the authoritarian Polish government. The possibility to challenge the rule of law conditionality at the ECJ significantly delays the implementation of the mechanism in the first place. The review process could last until after the 2022 Hungarian parliamentary elections and even the 2023 Polish parliamentary elections. Law and Justice (PiS), in power in Poland since 2015, has undermined the rule of law, attacked sexual minorities, and limited access to abortion.
The EU’s successive compromises with authoritarianism in Eastern Europe is causing a stir among young Poles. A recent study conducted by the University of Social Sciences and Humanities’ (SWPS) Centre for the Study of Democracy recorded a significant fall in support for the EU amongst 18-24 year olds, after the watering down of a provision designed to tackle abuses of power by withdrawing funding from governments acting in violation of the rule of law. As the authors of the study highlight, this age group was already the most eurosceptic in Poland. The EU’s approval rating among 18-24 year olds has now fallen to just 35%.
Three groups of young voters could be said to contribute to the high rate of euroscepticism among this age group. Voters of the right-wing Konfederacja party, especially popular with young people, for whom the EU is a perceived threat to national sovereignty; young PiS voters, who see the ‘rule of law’ obligation in itself as illegitimate interference in Polish domestic affairs; and now, most worryingly for the EU, young progressive voters, dissatisfied with what they consider to be a cautious EU approach towards authoritarianism in Poland and neighbouring Hungary.
It is this third group that appears most alarming for EU supporters. There is an expectation of a conservative backlash to EU laws and institutions, but amid the ongoing ‘culture war’ on the streets of Poland, which sees clashes between left and right-wing protestors, the two sides seem to be converging on the issue of Europe, albeit for opposing reasons.
Disappointment in the EU resounded in the testimonies of young Poles we spoke to. Melania, a student in Warsaw, told us:
I believe that the EU is an organisation that had a successful initiative at the beginning of its founding. However, with its development it is clear that it has not been as successful. Regarding the situation in Poland, it is visible that the current government has been numerously breaking the constitution and applying laws against human rights.
When asked about the EU’s stance towards the current Polish government, Melania remarked:
I believe that the EU carries a certain disregard for the people of Poland.
Increasing corruption and bigotry in Polish politics
In December, the state-run oil company PKN Orlen acquired Polska Press, the publisher of twenty leading regional newspapers. This sets a dangerous precedent whereby companies with ties to the government buy out private news outlets, thus posing a serious threat to media independence.
During last year’s presidential election campaign, Andrzej Duda, who won a second term in office, called LGBT ‘an ideology worse than communism’. Earlier that year, a number of local governments, encouraged by government ministers, declared themselves ‘LGBT-free zones.’ While the declarations are not legally binding, they commit local governments to opposing Duda’s fabricated bogeyman: ‘LGBT ideology’ and thus place LGBT people in Poland in grave danger.
In October, Poland’s politicised Constitutional Court ruled that abortion due to foetal defects was unconstitutional. The decision led to hundreds of demonstrations all over the country and in front of Polish embassies around the world, as the safety of women and girls continues to be a government target. Young people have been at the forefront of the fight against the PiS government and these abortion rights protests. Thousands attended and helped organise the recent ‘Women’s Strikes’, the largest anti-government demonstrations in Poland since the end of Communism.
Anna, a student who has regularly attended the abortion rights protests, tells us:
The compromise over the rule of law is yet another example of the EU giving priority treatment to its core members and ignoring citizens of “peripheral” countries. The compromise gives another 2-3 years to Law and Justice and Fidesz to continue further violations of civil liberties of Poles and Hungarians, only so bigger players can be guaranteed a full COVID recovery package. Moreover, ineffective Polish administration of ventilators, medicines, PPE, inappropriate training of nurses and doctors shows that our government cannot be trusted with the allocation of recovery money.
Polish Euroscepticism transcending party lines
A referendum on Polish membership in the EU, at least for now, seems unlikely. Out of the mainstream Polish political parties only Konfederacja (an electoral alliance of radical free marketeers, nationalists, and even one prominent monarchist MP) is openly anti-EU. However, growing disillusion with an EU seemingly incapable of punishing an illiberal Polish government should not be dismissed. Young Polish progressives are not afraid to express their concerns, as this group of students testified:
I am afraid that our government’s rule will become less and less democratic and no one will do anything to stop it. […] There would be no space for these absurdities if the EU was more decisive in their steps. If there is a clear violation of the law, then there should be clear reaction against it. This is one of the key purposes of the EU, to be the protective shield for the citizens…Julia, 21, Warsaw
The EU is in need of a significant overhaul of its structures. Unless the EU can clamp down and punish kleptocratic governments, like PiS in Poland and Fidesz in Hungary, it runs the risk of setting a dangerous precedent […] which would leave members with the choice of either remaining part of a Union devoid of the very morals it aims to espouse; cosy up to a volatile America; or succumb to a totalitarian Chinese regimeRodrigo, 20, Warsaw
The EU should be able to defend its points. This delay was absolutely disrespectful to the other 25 members and I do hope that it will not be remembered as the first step towards the fall of the EUTomek, 20, Lublin
Until now, euroscepticism has found it hard to establish itself in Polish politics, as it has traditionally remained confined to a small proportion of the right-wing electorate. But as young voters on the Left grow more disillusioned, left-wing euroscepticism could emerge in the country as a movement in its own right, one that transcends the existing social cleavages.
Poland is still considered one of the most pro-European countries in the bloc with 63% declaring EU membership to be a good thing, according to a Eurobarometer survey in 2019. But as the EU stands idly by whilst Poland drifts deeper into authoritarianism, young voters of all ideologies become increasingly disillusioned with a Union unwilling or unable to protect them from arbitrary rule. The result could be a quiet yet widespread resentment, permeating even young progressives, against the Union. If the EU is not careful it could alienate the very people who, in theory, should be its most ardent supporters.