Today is 16th anniversary of the biggest enlargement of EU. On 1 May 2004 some 70 million people became EU citizens.
Well, nobody told them this. So in June when there was an EP election people were confused. Why again they should go to the election box? After all they have voted in referendum about EU membership in 2003. Polish turnout in 2004 was 21%. EU’s turnout was… 45.5%.
Wasn’t the EU membership like the NATO membership back in 1999? It is an international organisation, right?
But hang on, EU is not only an international organisation. EU is also a community. Community of people, community of states, but a community nevertheless. Otherwise why on Earth would we vote for European elections every five years?
Europe is a community of destiny. Whether we like it or not we will not change the location of our states. We can change the location of our livelihoods. We can change the common destiny.
But we cannot deny the fact that the EU is so much more than an international organisation.
Yet, the Polish leaders of today deny this version of reality.
But they are only partially to blame. All Polish governments since 2004 had one thing on their mind: the money. Majority of Central Europeans are working for the EU institutions because it pays well. Before you feel offended, maybe you are a lucky minority, but I have heard so many times – and I’ve worked with over 1000 EU officials – “who would not want” to be paid well and have a job security? Once I’ve heard an honest opinion: “we are paid too much”. Others are asking for understanding, after all, “all of us do this”. I do not think “all Poles” in the Commission are there for the perks. Still, I have met so many wonderful people who went on to work for the institutions for the wrong reason.
“Wrong reason” for accession? Janusz Lewandowski, former Commissioner and current MEP says for Business Insider today: “Polish Euro-enthusiasm is very shallow” as some 181 billion Euros have been transferred to Poland over last 16 years. Why shallow? Lewandowski points out that the biggest benefit of membership is the single market.
He might be right, but the Civic Platform (2007-2015) as well as Law and Justice (2005-7 and 2015-) governments were so consumed with catching up with Western Europe that the side effect is clear: for majority of Poles EU is a cash-cow.
Rules, values, free movement, rights, scale, destiny are secondary.
This is where the Polish EU membership is after 16 years: Poland is half-in, half-out, and unsure if it wants to place the second feet inside. This is a question about what is the EU membership for Law and Justice? A limitation of national sovereignty, or a community of destiny?
Polexit is a process and it already takes place. Here’s my take on this process:
STEP ONE: Not full membership
Poland is a member of the EU and the Polish ultra conservative government does not want to change it. Last year, PiS argued they want Poland to be at EU’s heart. Still no step to enter the Eurozone has been made.
Politics is a dynamic matter and it is important on which trajectory you may be. Poland’s trajectory is not towards the EU’s heart, but out of its system. POINT TICKED
STEP TWO: Rule of law
EU has its cornerstones. Its guiding principles that are inconceivable to break. After all, it was created as a gentlemen’s club. Educated elites to guide the masses. A common understanding between them. Those rules did not need to be written down. Unless those Easterners, anyhow. Who knew how shallow those democracies were?
Hence the Copenhagen criteria. Hence the treaty reforms of 1990s and 2000s.
Rule of law is one of the EU’s cornerstones. If you break this principle, you are on your way out.
Non-Polish courts in other EU member states have to ask themselves on a case-by-case basis if there is a chance for a fair trial in Poland every time there is an European Arrest Warrant from Poland. POINT TICKED
STEP THREE: Democracy
Poland is a democratic state. Poles are freedom fighters, so goes the romantic sentiment, so in the moment of truth they will say NIE to any attempt of a dictatorship. True and true, but in those extraordinary times what we see is a clear attempt at a coup d’etat by the ruling party and the sitting president.
Elections scheduled for 10 May cannot take place. If there is a vote on the day it is a clear signal that the attempt of a coup d’etat actually takes place. Why? There is no time to prepare the vote properly, either traditionally, by a postal vote, or by an e-vote. So if there is a vote, it is an attempt to force a prolongation of the current president’s term without a proper consideration by the sovereign nation.
And if the Polish head of state is not elected democratically, this means Poland is no longer a democracy. There is no room for a non-democratic country in the EU. POINT PENDING
STEP FOUR: Europe creates problems for Poland that thrives, or Poland’s problems require European solutions
There is a lot of bad blood about EU in Poland. Many PiS voters blame EU for interference into domestic affairs. Many point that EU rules have limiting effect, that EU is over-bureaucratised and cumbersome. They see the threats of uniformity: that all Europeans are supposed to be left-leaning bikers, vegans, LGBT-friendly polyglots. “EU forces” Poland to do things, apparently. EU creates problems, not solutions.
How different from the Spanish and Ortega y Gasset’s take: “Spain is the problem, Europe the solution“. Europe as a means to solve national limitations and complexes. Europe as a promise of a better tomorrow if only we commit to it.
Today’s Poles do not feel this way. They hardly seek European solutions. Look at the number of enhanced cooperation with Poland or the number of Polish led projects within the Permanent Structured Cooperation. Poles behave like a thief: “they” give – you take, “they” beat you – you run away. EU gives money and your right to make money abroad, you take it. EU requires you to live by European standards, you are uneasy about it.
Not all the Poles. Probably not even the majority. But the government does. POINT TICKED
STEP FIVE: Irrelevance rather than a formal vote
Formally EU is an international organisation. The current government has no ambition to leave it at the moment. As long as this situation continues nobody is truly interested to change it. Poland will not deepen its European commitment, or will do it once forced. Just during the COVID19 pandemic the PiS government joined the joint acquisition of medical equipment scheme and the return of citizens mechanism only under heavy domestic criticism. Yet it did so.
The outstanding problems are obvious: rule of law and climate policy. But EU climate policy cannot be successful without Poland. Brussels institutions and national capitals should be – and are – interested to get Poland on board. Will the Polish government be open to negotiate the terms?
If the imminent question on democracy is resolved and if the persistent question on rule of law is addressed, Poland is still on the margins of European integration in 2010s and 2020s. The future of the European project – Dutch veto notwithstanding – is about the Social Europe and Europe that redistributes. Europe that spends, “the big government” question, etc. Poland is on the margins of this conversation because it is not in the Eurozone and has no interest in becoming one.
Hence expect no referendum in Poland to leave the EU for another some time. But do expect marginalization into growing irrelevance.
In other words, institutionally, formally Poland is and will remain in the EU. But politically it has exited the Union.
How to remedy the situation?
First, an army of people is needed. To talk to Poles about our union. To go to towns, cities, villages to bring Europe to its citizens. Still half of Poles have never been abroad. And the chauvinist government gives 100 euro per child per month for years.
Second, we should not idealize EU. Poles love to romanticize things, especially its own history, and as the author is Polish, there is this natural threat, to idealize EU. There is the contractual side to the Union of ours.
In order to end the war between Warsaw and Brussels there needs to be a truce between the two. Terms of entry into the Eurozone should be negotiated. Social Europe and redistributive policies could be an important chip. Poland already was before the current crisis on a good path to obtain a relative parity with economies of Italy and Spain within a decade.
We need a date of another EU accession. This time, to the Eurozone.