WARSAW — Not long ago, Poland was seen as the most successful example of democratic transformation in Central and Eastern Europe, a leader in European integration. It was enjoying, as the longtime European commissioner Gunter Verheugen wrote, a “new golden age.”
Today, the country is again ahead of others. Only this time, it’s in the vanguard of European disintegration and democratic dismantling. The government, led by the Law and Justice Party, has picked fights with the European Union, co-opted the courts, created legislation designed to muzzle independent media and taken a hard-line approach to women’s rights.
What happened? The answer, at least in part, lies in the past. Deprived statehood for centuries and overseen by external powers, Poland possesses a traumatic, nervous sense of itself. The current government has tried to channel that anxiety, inveighing against migrants, Brussels and liberals to create a fortress mentality. Despite occasional setbacks, such as the president’s decision to veto a controversial media bill, it has succeeded.
The country, of course, is far from alone in its right-wing politics. Across Central and Eastern Europe, where many countries have their own histories of occupation and foreign rule, nativist governments or political movements are common. The region, whose experiments with nationalism resonate widely across the West, is something of a test case. By concerted effort among opposition groups, it can still be won back to liberalism and democracy. But if you want a sense of what the future of Europe might hold, look to Poland.
There you’ll find something quite strange. Though the government is often rightly accused of nationalism, officials tend to take another, more benign term from the dictionary: “sovereignty.” In a recent speech in the European Parliament, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki repeated it three times in one sentence. “What is needed,” he said, “is a sovereign decision about sovereign decisions by sovereign member states.”
A matter of poor rhetorical style, perhaps. But the emphasis is no accident. The government consistently presents itself as a defender of Poland’s sovereignty. Many voters seem to like it: After six years in power, the ruling party still sits atop the polls. And underlying its long-term support are the traumas of the past.
In 1795, Poland was erased from the map after 800 years of existence, parceled out to Prussia, the Hapsburg Monarchy and the Russian Empire. For nearly two centuries, the dream of restoring an independent state consumed the intellectual and political efforts of Polish elites. There was a short period of sovereignty between the wars, but it ended with another trauma: the state’s complete destruction in 1939. After the war the country was enfolded into the Soviet Union’s sphere of dominance, experiencing an occupation that lasted half a century.
After the democratic breakthrough in 1989, Poland got its sovereignty back. The question was how to secure it. Two paths presented themselves. The first was to cleave to the West, joining both the European Union and NATO. The reasoning was simple: By belonging to a club where borders are agreed and inviolable, Poland’s sovereignty — its right to territorial form and state borders — was assured.
The country set about joining the West, and did so with great success. The economy soared, Poland took its place in the European concert of nations, and citizens were mostly convinced that the West would bring them not only safety but a better life. Yet by the time the country had fully integrated, many had grown disenchanted. Free movement across the bloc led to a brain drain, leaving an aging population to an inadequate health care system. For workers, average wages lagged behind those enjoyed by Western counterparts.
Capitalizing on voters’ frustrations, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice Party, skillfully articulated the second path for securing sovereignty. Poland should follow the example of the interwar state, known as the Second Republic, which restored Poland’s sovereignty after World War I. It was clearly an appealing proposition and the party won a majority in the 2015 election. But a central aspect of the Second Republic was overlooked: It was, after a coup in 1926, an authoritarian state. Democracy and the rule of law came second to a muscular projection of sovereignty.
In its six years in power, the ruling party has shown itself to be true heirs to that tradition. It has claimed control over key institutions — education, public media, the judiciary — and chafed against Brussels. In the past year, the confrontation has escalated: In response to the European Union’s censuring Poland for its plans to weaken the independence of the judiciary, the government has stiffened its talk of sovereignty. (It still continues to lay claim to the benefits of membership, such as pandemic recovery funds.)
During the recent crisis at Poland’s border with Belarus, where thousands of migrants pressed for entry, the government showed what going it alone might look like. It turned down the bloc’s offer of help and refused to admit those who reached its territory. For the moment, the adversarial approach is working: A majority of people back the government’s response, and the crisis seems to have shored up support for the government.
But it comes at a cost. The country’s growing isolation — which the government believes is a sign of Poland’s independence — is in fact opening it up to the influence of Russia, something officials are loath to admit. The situation in Ukraine hints at where that may lead. To stave off invasion, President Vladimir Putin of Russia has demanded, among other things, that NATO limit the deployment of troops in post-Communist countries, including Poland. The prospect of falling once again under Russian tutelage is grimly possible.
Yet for now, the government seems to be tapping into a sentiment shared across the West. Sovereignty, as an organizing principle for political action, is back. In Britain and America, of course, clamors to restore faded national glory led to Brexit and the presidency of Donald Trump. In Europe, Mr. Kaczynski in Poland and Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary are inspirational figures for the hard right, serving as examples to Éric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen in France and Matteo Salvini and Giorgia Meloni in Italy.
For all their specific differences, these politicians share a project: to fortify national resentments, at the expense of continental cohesion. If successful, they could conceivably end the Western model of liberal democracy as we know it. And unless it can settle its nervous sovereignty into democratic collaboration, Poland may have shown the way.
Karolina Wigura (@KarolinaWigura) is a board member of the Kultura Liberalna Foundation in Warsaw and a fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin. Jaroslaw Kuisz is the editor in chief of the Polish weekly Kultura Liberalna and a fellow at the University of Cambridge.
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