Why Poland would rather keep EU money than break with the bloc

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KOBYLIN-BORZYMY, Poland – The twin spiers of Saint Stanislaus, an imposing red-brick Catholic church, can be seen for miles through the cornfields and cow pastures of this conservative region of eastern Poland, a stronghold of support for the country’s nationalist government feast.

This party is “conservative and Catholic, and people here are very attached to national traditions and to the church,” said Dariusz Sikorski, the elected leader of a county who gave the candidate more than 90 percent of his vote. victorious party in a presidential election. Last year.

But they are also deeply attached to the species of the European Union. Taxpayers from the 27-nation bloc have provided nearly $ 150 million to build a nearby highway and millions more to help pay for a children’s playground, water pumping stations, a water pumping system, sewers, clean energy projects and local school upgrades.

While Poland is now locked in a tumultuous struggle with Europe over the rule of law which has raised the possibility, albeit very low, that the country will be forced out of the bloc, the government in Warsaw is in the process of gripped with a tension between nationalist instincts imbued with religious faith. and the reality of economic and political interests.

How this tension is resolved will decide the outcome of the European Union’s biggest crisis since Britain voted to leave the bloc in a 2016 referendum.

Relations with Brussels, the seat of the bloc’s executive, have deteriorated to such an extent that the ruling Law and Justice party and its supporters in Warsaw have increasingly thrown incendiary verbal bombs, threatening to “set the country on fire.” Europe ”and insulting the European Union as intimidation of the“ colonial ”force. The Polish Prime Minister even spoke of a “third world war”.

But places like Kobylin-Borzymy don’t seem in the mood to fight to the death. Poland has received more than $ 225 billion from the European Union since joining in 2004. It is again expected to get almost as many grants and loans during the current budget ending in 2027, plus an additional $ 47 billion in as part of the recovery program for Europe Covid.

As for the assertions by die-hard nationalists in Warsaw that the European Union is an “occupier” similar to the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, “no one really believes it,” said Sikorski, who presides over it. a local council whose 15 elected members all support Law and Justice.

Many farmers in the region, the backbone of the local economy and a deep well of votes for law and justice, would find it difficult to stay afloat without subsidies from Brussels, he said. “Almost everyone here benefits from the EU,” he said. Leaving it, he added, “is not a realistic option.”

But such a departure, a version of Britain’s Brexit known as Polexit, suddenly became a possibility after Poland’s constitutional court this month ruled that the country’s national laws were superior to EU law. Senior officials in Brussels and European politicians denounced the decision as an intolerable threat to the foundations of the union which cannot hold if Poland wants to remain a member.

Europe’s clash with the largest of the eight formerly communist countries that joined the bloc in 2004 has been developing for years on media freedom, LGBTQ rights, coal mining and other issues. But the crisis threatened to spill over this month with the court ruling.

“You are marching towards an exit from the European Union,” a German member of the European Parliament told Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki during a heated debate on Poland last week in a session of the Legislative Assembly in Strasbourg, France. The EU, German liberal Moritz Körner, said, “is not some kind of self-service store. If you do not want to respect European law, you cannot remain a member.

Loyal supporters of the ruling Kobylin-Borzymy party mostly reject talks of Poland’s exit from the EU as a futile threat concocted by foreign and Polish liberals, an opinion enthusiastically promoted last week on television. of state.

At least they hope so.

Leszek Mezynski, retired dairy farmer and deputy head of the regional council, said the conservative district wanted to exclude migrants and liberal ideas like same-sex marriage to avoid “civilizational suicide.” But he is more concerned, he said, of losing the economic benefits that flow from European farm subsidies, funding for new roads and other large sums of money.

Polexit “is not something that anyone here really wants,” Mezynski said.

Until Britain voted to leave in a 2016 referendum, however, Brexit wasn’t something many Britons seemed to want, or expect, either. occur.

Unlike Britain, where hostility to the European Union was a powerful force in domestic politics long before the 2016 vote, Poland never had a significant lobby to push it to withdraw. Unlike Britain before it left, Poland is making a lot more money out of the bloc’s pot than it is putting in.

A 2004 Polish referendum on union membership was passed with 77 percent of the vote and support for staying in the union has since increased to nearly 90 percent, according to opinion polls.

Warnings that Poland is compromising its membership have left the ruling party vulnerable to accusations by Opposition Leader Donald Tusk that the government, despite all its patriotic boast, has effectively aligned itself with Moscow by undermining the European unity. This is a powerful accusation in a country which has a constant fear of Russia.

Last week, Mr Tusk, former Polish Prime Minister and, until 2019, President of the European Council in Brussels, drew tens of thousands of people chanting ‘we are staying’ at a noisy pro-European protest in the central Warsaw. At another rally in the northern city of Gdansk, former Solidarity union leader Lech Walesa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for leading opposition to the Polish communist regime in the 1980s, denounced the government for endangering Poland’s membership in the bloc.

Polish cities, however, have long opposed law and justice. Much more worrying for the party in power is the unease felt in its rural base.

The entrance hall of Kobyline-Borzymy Primary School, named after a 16th-century Polish Jesuit priest famous for his patriotism, is decorated with a crucifix and a tribute to Pope John Paul II of Polish descent . The school was also aided by money from Brussels, which provided aid for new insulation and a nursery school.

Despite Prime Minister Morawiecki’s statements that Poland is a “proud country” that will never submit to financial pressure from the EU, such pressure has sometimes worked, even at the heart of the party.

Dozens of Polish cities dominated by law and justice sparked outrage across Europe in 2019 by declaring themselves “LGBT-free” zones. But one by one, threatened with cuts in European funding, some have since quietly retreated.

And Mr Morawiecki, shortly after vowing last week to never surrender in a defiant speech in the European Parliament, paved the way for a partial surrender. He told lawmakers his government would abolish a disciplinary chamber for judges that Europe’s highest court and its top officials see as compromising the independence of the Polish judiciary. They have repeatedly called for Poland to dismantle it and reverse other changes to the justice system made by the ruling party.

Ultimate decision-making power in Warsaw, however, does not lie with the prime minister, but with 72-year-old Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the deeply conservative and unpredictable leader of the ruling party.

Mr. Kaczynski, a longtime devout Catholic and celibate, is vilified by the Liberals as a reactionary eccentric. But he has a strange political sense that made him the dominant figure in Poland, although he is now being tested by the Warsaw clash with Brussels.

He must fear alienating voters who depend on European money in the run-up to elections scheduled for 2023. At the same time, he struggles to maintain a fragile coalition government that depends on a far-right faction led by Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro, the architect of changes in justice now at the heart of the disagreement with Europe.

In an interview last week with a conservative weekly magazine, Sieci, Mr Kaczynski dismissed the possibility of “Polexit” as “complete nonsense” invented by his opponents. But he has also made it clear that he does not want a snap election, which will be difficult to avoid unless he appeases Mr Ziobro and his Eurosceptic colleagues.

Although there is still no sign of a massive defection of his supporters, some voters have doubts.

Piotr Perkowski, a 43-year-old farmer with EU subsidies who used to vote for law and justice, said: “I certainly won’t vote for them now. The government took money from the European Union to build a new water pumping system, he said, but did not connect his house to it, leaving his family without running water. Law and justice, he said, “have made too many promises they broke.”

But Law and Justice, aided by state television, convinced many in Kobylin-Borzymy that the opposition, not the government, is to blame for raising doubts over Poland’s membership in the bloc in spreading the internal quarrels of the country in front of foreigners.

“People should settle their differences at home and not yell so their neighbors can hear,” said Kazimierz Kloskowski, whose family farm produces corn and wheat. Still, as a recipient of cash grants from Europe, he’s not entirely convinced that escalating tensions with Brussels is a good idea.

“There is no other option for us than Europe,” he said. “The only alternative to Brussels is Moscow. And we already know what it looks like.

Anatol Magdziarz contributed reporting from Warsaw and Monika Pronczuk from Brussels.


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