‘Poland on path to Polexit’, warned a Guardian article in October 2021. This followed a ruling, challenging EU laws, by a Polish constitutional tribunal composed largely of judges loyal to the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party.
Now, in what seems a dramatic turn-around, described by the Financial Times as a victory of pluralism over populism, the main opposition parties won 248 seats out of the 460 seats in Poland’s Parliament in the election on 15 October 2023. This compared to 194 for PiS, although it remained the largest party. However, Poland’s illiberal and Catholic-influenced establishment has captured many of its institutions, so will the Polish President, himself a supporter of PiS, allow the opposition to take power?
Links between UK and Poland
The historic links between the UK and Poland are closer than we might think. Growing up in the strongly Catholic town of Preston Lancashire, my neighbours included Polish children, whose parents had emigrated to the UK in the aftermath of World War II.
Later, as a student in 1973, I had the chance to join a group exchange visit to Kraków. I had a naïve scepticism that the stories of Communist oppression behind the ‘Iron Curtain’ were exaggerated. I was soon disabused of this, as threatening military guards swarmed on to the train as we crossed first the East German border and then the Berlin Wall. (Apparently, they were looking for drugs on the way out and for would-be escapees from East Berlin on the way back). The English-speaking Polish students travelling with us would not engage in any serious discussion on the train, as they were afraid of being bugged.
Dominance of Catholicism
On arrival in Kraków, still a Catholic myself at the time, I was astonished to observe the overwhelming dominance of Catholicism there, even though a communist regime was in power. A new Catholic church was being constructed in Nowa Huta (which had been planned as a model Communist town) next to Kraków.
Following riots, reflecting the size of congregations attending outdoor services, permission had eventually been granted, providing the building did not look like a typical Catholic church. The first corner stone was laid in 1969 by Cardinal Karol Wojtyła, the subsequent Pope John Paul II. The resulting ‘Lord’s Arc’, finally completed in 1977, was built by volunteers amongst the workers at the nearby steel works.
Communism, Solidarity and the Law and Justice Party
In the early 1980s, the Nowa Huta church became a focal point for protests against Communism. Martial law had been imposed to counter anti-government campaigns by the union-led movement Solidarity, which ultimately brought democratisation and an end to Communist rule. These elements in Poland’s history have contributed to deep political divisions and to the dominance of the right-wing PiS party in recent years.
The incumbent government used increasingly authoritarian tactics, and opposed human rights generally upheld in Europe. This included restricting abortio and targeting immigrants and LGBTQ+ groups. They also took control of the media and the judiciary, hoping to establish an autocracy promoting traditional Catholic values. Ironically, this situation was threatening to replace Communist oppression with an illiberal, one-party state, with echoes of Victor Orban’s nationalist Hungary.
In the run up to the recent election, the PiS party was damaged by bribery scandals and also attempted to blacklist opponents, such as the opposition leader Donald Tusk. In the event, street protests and infringement proceedings by Brussels prevented this. The EU withheld E36bn of Covid recovery funding as part of these stand-offs – funding which Tusk has promised to access.
Despite unrelenting propaganda from the PiS party on state-controlled media, on 15 October, a record turnout of 74 per cent, including many women and young people, saw PiS lose control of both houses of the Polish Parliament. By 24 October, Poland’s three largest opposition parties in the lower house announced that they were ready to form a centrist government, under Tusk’s Civic Coalition, aligned with the centre-right’s Third Way and the New Left.
The prospect of a return to a Tusk-led Poland was greeted with delight by most European political leaders, especially in Germany, which had been the target of hostility from the PiS. In EU terms, Tusk is a known and trusted pair of hands, having previously served as Polish Prime Minister from 2007-14, and then as President of the European Council from 2014-2019. He will sustain Poland’s support for Ukraine. The invasion has reminded many Poles of their past as a satellite state of Russia.
Can Tusk deliver on his triumph over populism?
Could Tusk be blocked from taking power? The President, Andrzej Duda, who will remain in post until 2025, has made clear his intention to delay any transition to a Tusk-led government until at least mid-December and is offering PiS the first chance to form a government.
Even if, as seems likely, PiS fails to win a vote of confidence in Parliament, for Tusk’s coalition to reverse PiS’s take-over of the judiciary will require legislation which the President, or the constitutional tribunal referred to above, could veto. As the PiS also controls state-owned companies and the media, reinstating their independence will take time.
Only when the EU is satisfied that Tusk is delivering on reforms such as an independent judiciary and media, and respect for the rule of law, will the promised E36bn of frozen EU funds be forthcoming,
As Tusk has said: “Europe is freedom, the rule of law, the fight against corruption.” With over 40 million people, the EU’s fifth most populous country, Poland is of crucial importance to Brussels. The prospect of a pro-EU Polish Prime Minister is a welcome boost, following the recent rise of a number of populists in European countries (including Robert Fico in Slovakia).
In 1939, the UK, along with France, declared war on Nazi Germany two days after the invasion of Poland, in order to liberate Europe from totalitarian oppression. Thousands of Poles escaped to France and later to the UK and made an invaluable contribution to the war effort. Faced with occupation of their country by the Red Army and Communist rule, with some help from the UK government, a significant number, including my former neighbours, were able to settle in the UK.
What a tragedy that it is now we, in the UK, who no longer benefit from membership of the European Union, the successor to the community of countries set up post-war to ensure peace and prosperity, and the defence of freedom, human rights and the rule of law in Europe.