Both the current president and government of Poland have stated time after time that they support further integration within the European Union, and such a view is broadly shared by the majority of Poles.
Nevertheless, the Polish authorities would like the EU to be headed in a different direction to that in which it is currently heading. The EU, as politicians of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party like to put it, should allow its member states to play a greater role in forging the union’s future, simultaneously allowing them to strengthen their autonomy from EU institutions. A return of parity between member states is also advocated, meaning that more the EU’s more powerful members should not be able to impose their will on those considered weaker.
Fierce differences of opinion have been evident in some of the disputes between Western and Central Europe, from dealing with refugees to the rights of seconded workers. Poland’s current government also wants to see the wings of the EU’s officials clipped, and efforts to build a European Federation abandoned. Instead, the Polish government supports strengthening the role of the national parliaments in European politics and ensuring the proper application of the principle of subsidiarity.
Polish proposals have not been met with any real enthusiasm by European institutions and some of the other EU member states. And yet while the direction of further European integration currently remains the bloc’s most divisive issue, it is not the only matter member states cannot agree on.
For several years, the Polish government has pointed out the need to concentrate on securing external borders and has opposed the EU’s quota system for refugees, emphasising that the admission of refugees and immigrants is a matter of national security and should, therefore, be decided at national level. Another issue is the future of the single market. Poland stands by the freedoms guaranteed by the EU’s many treaties, which include the free movement of services and labour, and opposes any restrictions on these freedoms, such as the recently proposed limitations on the rights of seconded workers. From Warsaw’s point of view, the proposed change would benefit only Western Europe, by raising rates of employment and competitiveness to the disadvantage of Central Europe.
Other divisive issues relate to the future of the climate and energy framework, defence policy, and the next multi-annual budget.
Differences of opinion regarding any or indeed all of these policies are not new in EU politics and should be seen as a part of an ongoing game of negotiation rather than a beginning of the dissolution process. It is not an easy game for Warsaw to play, however, since it is accompanied by significant political pressure. What the Polish government calls internal reforms, European politicians portray as an attack on the rule of law: in their words, Poland has taken an autocratic and anti-democratic path. To the Polish government this rhetoric, together with critical media coverage, has only served to help its rivals weaken Poland’s position within the EU, especially in negotiations on the future of integration.
EU officials have maintained on many occasions that European law must be obeyed without exception, just as democracy and rule of law must be upheld. Nevertheless, it can be argued that some of the charges against Poland are rather dubious. For example, in the case of judicial reform, the European Commission (EC) considers different retirement ages for male and female judges to be a violation of gender equality rules.
However, such legislation already exists in other EU member states. In Poland, different retirement ages for men and women have been considered the norm for many years, and have never been questioned by the EC before. Additionally, the Polish Constitutional Court ruled in 2010 that the privilege of women to retire earlier is constitutional.
Given this, it is understandable that the Polish government considers some of the EC’s claims to be biased and politically motivated. It is, therefore, less of a real issue and more of an instrument of pressure in debates over the future of the European Union. After all, many western European politicians openly state that the easiest way to resolve current conflicts with Poland would be to change the governing party.
For Poland, national sovereignty is a fundamental issue. Interference by other member states in the internal reforms or external support for the opposition against the legally elected government is considered an infringement of this sovereignty. Poland also stresses that the EC, an institution with no democratic mandate, has no right to discipline a government which is fulfilling its election promises. Similarly, no such right was ever given by Polish voters to any foreign leaders, especially as their European policies focus solely on securing the interests of their respective countries.
The dispute over European values might also be seen as a dispute between social conservatism and liberalism. Politicians of the governing party in Poland consider the Europe’s Christian roots as the basis for any further EU integration. Such integration should be limited to European nations and their diverse values and traditions. They are sceptical when it comes to opening Europe up to non-European immigration, and question the premises of multiculturalism, which promotes the settlement of groups who not only find it difficult to integrate into European society but also openly defy European values and pose a threat to national security.
Conservative Polish politicians also advocate the strengthening of the role of the traditional family (which they view as consisting of a husband, a wife and children) in society. Consequently, they are against the legalisation of homosexual relationships and deny homosexuals the right to adopt children. They also oppose easing Poland’s harsh abortion laws, believing that unborn children have the right to live and that their rights are equal to those of their potential mothers. Finally, there are the differences pertaining to economic matters, as already outlined. Almost all of these Polish values could be seen as problematic because they are either against the political mainstream or against the interests of key EU member states.
As a result, disputes within Europe are becoming increasingly heated. It is no longer a matter of different national interests, but also a deepening crisis of values, which makes reaching any compromise harder. The Polish government remains a supporter of integration, but it will not forego its national interests, national identity and national security. These sentiments are apparently shared by many in Polish society, with polls showing high levels of support for PiS. Simultaneously, the EU is trying to focus on maximising its interests by attempting to subdue Polish authority by applying political pressure over alleged ‘authoritarianism’, while radicalising its stance on accepted values. This conflict is therefore no longer simply about sidelining Poland but increasingly looks like an effort to ‘make it leave’ the EU.
The views expressed in this opinion editorial are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Emerging Europe’s editorial policy.