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Poland Challenges the European Identity

Poland emerging europe

I am writing this from a hotel room in Warsaw, surrounded by memorials to Frederic Chopin, the great Polish composer and champion of self-determination for the Polish people. This is a particularly appropriate time to be here, since Poland is locked in a battle with the European Union over the question of Polish national self-determination — more than two centuries after Chopin was born.

The issue comes down to this: Poland elected a government that pledged to change the direction in which the country was moving. The new government was of the right. It opposed the policies and institutional stance of the previous, left-of-centre government. The previous government had embedded its followers in various institutions, such as the courts and national radio, as governments tend to do. The new government saw itself as facing a hostile judiciary and state-owned media. And so it sought to change the management of the state-owned media and “reform” (in its terms) the judiciary.

When it tried to change personnel in both institutions, the opposition charged that these actions violated the constitution, that the government had overstepped its bounds and that it was trying to repress critics. The government countered that the opposition was trying to thwart the new government from ruling. It had been elected by a substantial majority, and it had clearly expressed its policies during the elections.

Politics as usual

So far this is politics as usual. Examples of it abound. In the United States in the 20th century, President Franklin D Roosevelt, facing a Supreme Court of entrenched conservatives, tried to expand the court’s size and pack it with his own supporters. He lost. In Britain, in the decades after World War II, the state-owned BBC had a monopoly on broadcasting and had been staffed by Labour governments. Conservative governments accused it of being hostile to them, and attempts to change the staff were met with accusations of censorship.

These sorts of arguments are endemic to democracies with government bureaucracies. The public mood changes but the bureaucracies’ ideology remains intact. A battle ensues. Competing factions all point to dire consequences if their views don’t prevail, but a viable if not altogether acceptable solution is normally found.

What makes the Polish situation different is the threatened intervention by the European Union bureaucracy and the vocal hostility of Germany to the new government’s policies. This includes threats to suspend Poland from participation in some EU functions and various hostile claims about the Polish government.

This not only raises the stakes but also goes to the heart of liberal democracy. At the core of liberal democracy is the right of national self-determination. Self-determination, according to theorists of liberal democracy like Locke and Montesquieu, involves some sort of democratic process, a concept with a wide variety of institutional structures, all of which have, at their core, some sort of electoral process.

There is no question that Poland’s current government was elected in a legitimate vote, and in that sense, it represents the determination of the people. The implicit claim made by its opponents is that in implementing this mandate the government violated the Polish Constitution. I am reminded of Andrew Jackson’s response to a Supreme Court ruling with which he disagreed, when he suggested that the court should have to enforce its own ruling because his government wouldn’t. Jackson undoubtedly violated the essence of the US Constitution, but the republic survived.

Deviation

Given that Poland’s government emerged as an act of self-determination, and given that the actions it has undertaken are not unprecedented in the annals of liberal democracy, it is strange that the EU and Germany should be so aggressive in raising an alarm over Poland. There are a number of reasons. First, the EU has a core ideology. One part of it is a commitment to free trade. The other is a commitment to a social order that is primarily secular, that seeks to overcome national distinctions and that is intolerant of intolerance.

By this I mean that it embraces the doctrine that the state must not only permit variances in private life but be prepared to enshrine them in a legal system of compulsory tolerance. The combination of a commitment to free trade and a commitment to private choices being enshrined as part of public policy inevitably finds certain varieties of liberal democracy unacceptable. Nationalist exclusivity, erosion of secularism by religiosity and a reluctance to turn private freedom into something explicitly celebrated by the state are rejected.

The Polish government’s misfeasance is not really about courts or broadcasting. Rather, it is about Poland deviating from the EU’s ideology. The Polish government has opposed unlimited immigration into Poland by Muslims, arguing that it would change the country’s national character. In other words, Poland has elevated national distinctions to a level unacceptable to the European Union. It insists that there is a Polish nation and that others with differing values cannot become part of it.

There is the additional question of secularism. Poland is a Catholic country, not only in the sense that many practice that religion but in the deeper sense, that Polish history is bound up with Catholicism. This is true for all of Europe (adding in Orthodox and Protestantism), but for Poland this bond is far fresher. The destruction of communism in Poland, and to a great extent in Eastern Europe in general, was deeply dependent on the Polish Catholic Church, which encouraged and protected the resistance movement against communism and against the German occupation that preceded it.

When Catholicism was seen as an anti-totalitarian movement, the Europeans celebrated it. When it was discovered that the Catholic Church was not just a non-governmental organisation demanding human rights but was also truly Catholic — a religion — Europeans cooled to it. When the Catholic Church, always deeply embedded in Polish political life, pursued positions on private life unacceptable to the EU’s ideology and was entwined with the new government, the hostility jelled.

Benefits of membership

The Polish government represents a fundamental challenge to the EU. The EU promoted an ideology in which national distinctions were to subside and be replaced by a European ideology. Since 2008, resistance to the priority of Europeanism over national identity has increased. This is what motivated Brexit. Poland and some other Eastern European countries have been particularly unwilling to abandon their national identities. In Poland’s case, this national identity was tied to public religiosity — a religion unwilling to be confined to the private sphere and unwilling to accept the EU’s views on the state’s affirmation of a variety of behaviours.

The EU’s ideology became more problematic after 2008 as the economic benefits of membership declined. The EU has sought to protect its moral and social principles in the face of this decline. The Polish government directly challenges this ideology. If the idea of Europeanism weakens and the idea of the nation rises, while Europe fails to return to its pre-2008 prosperity, then the moral principles binding the EU will wither.

There is a reason Eastern Europe — Poland and Hungary, in particular — are championing this. Poland was sovereign for about 20 years during recent centuries. It lost its sovereignty to Germany and Russia. Losing it again to the EU, whose economic promise is in question and which demands the right to judge and guide Poland’s internal life, seems like a bad deal. Eastern Europe has struggled for its sovereignty for a long time. Sovereignty means not bending your knee to a greater power.

But for the EU, Poland and Hungary are mortal challenges. They have defined being European in a certain way. Poland and Hungary are reclaiming their right to their own national identity. The spread of the idea of national identity over EU values leaves the EU as an economic relationship, an elective affinity based on what the EU brings to the table. The EU is configured to judge its members. If the Polish (and British) disease spreads, the members will be judging the EU.

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The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.

The article was originally published on Geopolitical Futures. It has been reprinted with permission.

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About the author

George Friedman

George Friedman

Dr George Friedman is a geopolitical forecaster and strategist on international affairs. He is the founder and chairman of Geopolitical Futures, a new online publication that analyses and forecasts the course of global events. Prior to founding Geopolitical Futures, he was chairman of Stratfor, the private intelligence publishing and consulting firm he founded in 1996. He received a BA at the City College of New York, where he majored in political science, and a PhD in government at Cornell University.

4 Comments

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  • I always find it odd that the former colonizer nations fully understand why their colonies demanded their independence from a nation that didn’t share the same cultural history and societal values of the country they had “invaded”. Obviously it is rational for South Africa, India/Pakistan, Caribbean Island nations, et. al. to not appreciate the foreigners in their lands. But now it is absolutely beyond the pale for citizens of a Western nation to want the same thing – to retain their cultural heritage and national sovereignty by keeping out foreigners. European elites are still the colonizers, they just now see Southern and Eastern European nations as the dirty natives whose values need to be changed.

  • Great article that actually attempts to dig beyond the usual garbage the other media outlets recycle over and over.

    I just wanted to say that the EU should wake up to the fact that forcing all member countries to become ethnically diverse has the opposite end result. absolutely no diversity. The beauty of Europe has always been the unique differences between all the countries and you also had some countries that did have high levels of diversity. Usually these were the countries that had in the past been colonialist and as a result ended up inheriting those foreign identities. Poland never had a history of colonialism so its unjust to push multiculturalism onto Poland.

    I also have a beef when western europe demeans Poland by calling it a young and immature democracy because they believe that democracy in Poland only started after the collapse of communism in 1989. The reality is Poland’s adoption of a Constitution on May 03 1791 is the first in Europe and second after the United States in the world. In fact Poland’s Monarchy was not a dynasty, the kings of Poland were actually voted into service starting all the way back in 1573. Poland’s first elected king was actually Frances Henry III who was not supposed to inherit the French crown, he was briefly Poland’s king until the unexpected death of his brother.

  • There is some point to it, but.. No, Poland is not “too much nationalist” and not breaking the EU rules in any way. For example, there is a rule that anyone like a Spaniard or Estonian or Slovak may move to Poland (or vice versa) and freely work and live there. There is almost nobody against this rule in Poland, ie. not nationalist in this sense. But there is a point you did not mention enough but it is the core of the dispute. The EU states never agreed they will accept huge amounts of citizens from outside of Europe, especially from Muslim countries. This is what PL and HU are against, and this is what also Czechs, Slovaks and probably Austrians and others are against. Sooner or later, there will be a majority against this I believe. Was there ever a vote on this? No. This was the decision by German Chancellor Merkel alone, in breach of the Dublin III EU Treaty, in breach of her own constitution section 16A and against any common sense, taking everyone (not just war refugees and not temporarily as stated by their media). What Poles do not want: to be islamized and to lose their secure streets to the level of France or Belgium, Sweden etc. This is the real core of this dispute. It is not about wanting to “catholicise” everyone on Polish soil and not against the free movement of citizens between EU countries. Also, the ideology of the EU has moved away from free markets (it violates free markets in many points) to leftist progressivist ideology with multicultural characters (but in reality heading for non-European monoculture). But this is not something eternal, just a few elections and this ideology will be replaced to one more friendly to the Polish view. But Poles do not want to break the EU, it is the EU organs currently “run” by Germany and France that violate all sensible common policy. Their new ideology leads to disaster breakup unless changed, unfortunately. They do not have a majority even in Germany or France for this type of “replacement” but they do not dare to ask in a referendum.

  • Mr. Friedman writes about sovereignty as rationally as a 4th grader. Since Europe remains an occupied subcontinent in the 21st century. And just last year, Poland itself welcomed foreign troops on its soil once again, what type of sovereignty does any country in Europe have?