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The Taming of Poland’s Far Right

Why the Law and Justice Party has pulled back from its Polexit proposal

Mateusz Morawiecki in Brussels in October. (John Thys/AFP/Getty Images)

From London to Rome, the European Union over the past decade has served as a useful punching bag, wheeled out to unite domestic voters against a conveniently opaque and unglamorous bogeyman. The results have been as various as the politicians and voters involved: In the United Kingdom, a series of unforced political errors have resulted in the extended and economically damaging Brexit saga. In Greece, demonstrators have largely stuck to burning European leaders in effigy. In Italy, support for remaining in the European Union seems to be dwindling.

In 2015, when the right-wing Law and Justice Party won majority power in Poland, many international observers feared the Central European country would become the next hotbed of virulent anti-European politics. And indeed, Poland’s leaders have perfected the art of Brussels-bashing. But almost four years on, the pace of Poland’s rightward turn seems to have slowed. With the country’s right-wing populists struggling, and a prodigal leader ready to return from Brussels, Polish EU-bashing may soon be on the wane.

Since coming to power, Law and Justice has purged the military and civil service, levied fines on the free press, and even launched a hostile takeover of the country’s judiciary, lowering its Supreme Court retirement age to pack benches with party loyalists. The state has pursued a warm relationship with Viktor Orbán, whose autocratic rule of Hungary has dismayed European counterparts since his installation in 2010. The EU threatened to cut Poland’s EU voting rights over the judicial decision, a hollow threat given that all 27 states must agree, and Orbán would surely veto such a move.

Unlike other countries, where experts have attributed right-wing lurches to the 2008 financial crash—Hungary, Italy, and Britain being classic examples—Poland emerged from the crisis comparatively unscathed. Even today its economy continues to grow at a rate of 4.6 percent, one of the highest in the EU. Yet loud criticism of Brussels and EU leadership persists.

In 2017, neo-Nazi and white-nationalist groups marched alongside those commemorating the country’s 1918 return to independence after the First World War. “Yesterday it was Moscow, today it’s Brussels which takes away our freedom,” protesters in Warsaw chanted. Just like in Britain, Poland’s Law and Justice politicians spoke of a sovereignty lost—as well as a fight to take back control of a country whose memories of brutal authoritarianism still loom large. Talk of a “Polexit” festered. Few party officials commented, though experts warned that Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczyński, the party’s chest-thumping leader, favored leaving the bloc altogether.

The persistent difference between Poland and the UK, where a slim majority of voters opted for Brexit, is that regular Poles don’t want to leave the EU. With 72 percent of voters backing Brussels, Poland has the highest EU-approval rating of any member nation—a fact that makes it hard to see “Polexit” rhetoric as anything more than a safe way to cudgel immigration and progressivism without risking subsidies and spending that currently brings 8.9 billion Euros into the Polish economy.

The surprising flimsiness of Poland’s right-wing façade, but also the deep divisions in the country, were revealed in October, when local elections with the highest turnout since the fall of communism illuminated a large gap between Poland’s countryside and its cities. Law and Justice maintained a lead in provincial assemblies, prompting Kaczyński to gas about “omens” and hopes of a “better atmosphere” for the future. But of 107 mayoral races also taking place, Law and Justice won just four. All of Poland’s major cities–Warsaw, Krakow, Wroclaw, Lodz and Gdansk–went to opposition candidates.

Warsaw, the bustling, chameleonic capital, was the vote’s biggest prize. That it fell to Rafal Trzaskowski, a Europhile who speaks six languages, says much of the yawning political gap that has opened between rural and urban Poles.

Law and Justice made several big errors during the vote, which exposed the weakness of their prime minister since 2017, Mateusz Morawiecki: a clean-cut banker from Wroclaw who has failed to connect with the party’s base. The judicial power grab may also have turned off voters who still recall the years of Communist agitprop.

Humbled, Law and Justice has offered Brussels a slightly more conciliatory tone. Last month, Morawiecki vowed that Poland will fulfill its EU contributions. Behind him was a banner that read: Poland, the Heart of Europe. On November 11, around 200,000 people marched through Warsaw to mark the hundredth anniversary of Poland’s independence. Media reported some racists among the crowds. But many far-right protesters stayed home. Compared to the previous year’s bilious rhetoric, it was an improvement.

That doesn’t mean the assault on Brussels is over. Many of Europe’s right-wing populists have recently opted for a Trojan Horse approach to EU-warfare: nationalism cloaked in the language of multinationalism. Politicians such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen have spearheaded a “Europe of Nations” campaign against immigration and European integration. Law and Justice is expected to join the movement. Last month, Poland and Hungary both vetoed an EU anti-LGBTIQ discrimination bill, further highlighting the conservative pact the two countries have forged.

But there’s an elephant in the room—or, more accurately, a Tusk. Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister from 2007 to 2014 before becoming European Council President, has grown ever more vocal criticizing Law and Justice’s more radical inclinations, calling their politicians “contemporary Bolsheviks” who should be defeated. In October, upon the news that authorities had removed a plaque bearing his name from Poland’s EU embassy in Brussels, Tusk tweeted: “Never mind the plaque. It’s important that they don’t unscrew Poland from the European Union.”

Tusk is still popular, and his voice carries. While his renewed involvement in domestic politics may feed Law and Justice’s complaints of a meddling EU, it will also energize Civic Platform, the party of Trzaskowski and many other recent local election victors. That, alongside Law and Justice’s backtracking, may torpedo Polexit altogether. “Poles have demonstrated through great mobilization and high turnout that they want to defend the independence of institutions, the independence of local governments,” Grzegorz Schetyna, leader of Civic Platform, the country’s biggest opposition party, declared in response to the 2018 fall elections.

European Parliament elections arrive this May, and Polish parliamentary and presidential races take place in spring and 2020 respectively. Barring a gigantic upset, Law and Justice will remain Poland’s most powerful political force in 2019. But the country’s right-wing turn now seems a little less sharp. Its populists face a real struggle to control the country’s narrative, and Poles remain hugely in favor of the EU. It may be an anomaly in Europe’s Euroskeptic craze, but for those wishing to hold the bloc together, Poland offers a fascinating example.