The victories of the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party in Poland in both the presidential elections of May 2015 and the parliamentary elections of October 2015 have been controversially debated by pundits and journalists. Many observers interpret Poland’s shift to the right as a sign of a broader Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) slide-back towards some form of authoritarianism. Such a slide would have unknown effects on the European unification project, which is already in the midst of economic and financial crisis.
Some are already counting down the days of the Polish democracy, considering EU pressure on Poland’s government to withdraw some of its recently contested laws to be the current PiS administration’s only rescue. For background, on January 13, for the first time in its history, the European Union introduced a formal investigation against Poland to determine whether new laws by the PiS government regarding the Polish Constitutional Court and state media violate EU rules and respect the rule of law. The Venice Commission of the Council of Europe – “The European Commission for Democracy through Law” – will now play an important role in assessing the new Polish government’s operations.
For some observers, the sheer fact of the investigation, independent of its outcome, indicates that a “reverse transformation” may be underway in the CEE area, coming after the region’s “great transformation” from communism to liberal-democracy in the late 1980s and early 1990s. This “reverse transformation” has, according to commentaries both in Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy, supposedly been spurred by paranoid and cunning right-wing politicians who allegedly manipulate CEE societies and their young and still somewhat underdeveloped political cultures in order to abolish democracy and establish neo-authoritarian regimes. In the minds of these observers, the current “restoration” government in Poland seems to be threatening the future of the European Union as a whole. Indeed, the EU has announced the possibility of sanctions or even “stronger measures” (a hint toward the potential temporary suspension of Poland’s voting rights in still-to-be-determined contexts in the EU), in case the envisaged “structured talks” on the principles of democracy and rule of law between the EU commission and the current Polish government (under prime minister Beata Szydło and president Andrzej Duda) are not successful.
Although the Polish case thus at first glance seems to be a black-and-white game with the roles of the “good guy” (the EU) and the “bad guy” (Poland) clearly assigned, things in reality are more complex. Several factors are worthy of consideration for a more reality-adequate and in-depth analysis.
First, it is correct that transitions to democracy can be reversed and that, in this sense, the political situation in Poland can be viewed as worthy of dialogue and clarification. It is also obvious that the country’s communication with its European partners has been less than harmonious. And finally, while it is also appropriate to assert that the current crisis is both an expression and a motor of the greater European unification and coherence crisis, the “doomsday” assessments of many Western observers are to some extent immature. Many of the respective judgments are based on rather uninformed understandings and half-adequate contextual framings of the recent political developments in Poland and other CEE countries.
In reality, the “conservative turn” that has been occurring slowly but steadily not only in Poland, but overall in the greater CEE area – including, in particular, Hungary – over (at least) the past decade can be explained by two issues: 1) the specific problems of CEE governance and 2) their interaction with the European Union’s superficial institutionalism. The crucial role of the interconnection of these two dimensions is evident in the CEE’s recent historical evolution.
It is important to consider both concepts closely in order to produce a more balanced and sober conclusion about the implications of the Polish case.
1) The specific problems of CEE governance
From a pragmatic and non-idealist view, the most important reason for the recent electoral victory of the Polish Right is less ideological than it is structural – as far as it is related to the specific, historical pathologies of CEE governance after the transition to democracy, and the notorious weakness of the European integration project. That is the case both in Poland and in Hungary, although the conservative political turn in Hungary over the past few years has certainly been much more authoritarian than the current one in Poland. What are the origins of this development?
It should not be forgotten that liberal democracy (and with it liberal capitalism) was introduced to the CEE nations, including Poland, in the late 1980s, the historical peak of the neoliberal interpretation of governance, democracy, and capitalism. In 2016, after 25 years, the CEE version of capitalism still remains neoliberal in many ways. It is thus showing serious limitations in enabling the redistributive and social needs of the region’s transforming societies.
No doubt: The neoliberal model was highly successful during the dramatic economic and political transformation that took place in the CEE area after 1989, the fall of the Berlin wall, and the subsequent end of communism in 1991. Yet for all of the period’s successes, considerable numbers of CEE citizens saw themselves deprived of the democratically promised chance to increase their social mobility, find steady jobs, and live without fear of socio-economic decline. Contrary to what the post-communist promise was, both young people and senior citizens in CEE lived under existential pressure for many years with governments that were unable to strengthen welfare systems and balance growing social inequality. As a result, in the past 10 years, more than 2.3 million Poles have been forced to emigrate to the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Germany. It should not be forgotten that the UK’s threat to leave the European Union, the so-called “Brexit”, to be determined in a referendum on June 23, 2016, is closely connected with “the huge surge in migration from Eastern Europe – especially Poland – and EU enlargement since 2004.”
The main reasons for the migratory wave were the failures and shortfalls of CEE governance in the 25 years following the implementation of democracy. Today, the majority of Polish pensioners have to live on $450 per month and must pay for their medicine in full. In addition, Polish pensioners are heavily indebted; their accumulated debt burden was roughly equal to $500 million in 2015. The public health system operates at a dismal level due to chronic underfunding. Consequently, the majority of Polish citizens have to use private medical services, despite the fact that the average Polish household’s net financial wealth is $10,919, while the OECD average is close to $67,000.
At the same time, numerous Polish governments after 1989 used state agencies and enterprises for cronyism and politico-economic clientelism, draining financial resources from the state budget that could have been invested into higher education, research, health, and pension systems. Foreign capital has not only been unable to substitute for many of these structural difficulties and for the chronic problem of the misappropriation of public funds, but also has produced its own problems, such as real-estate bubbles and problematic mortgages for small savers (many of them denominated in Swiss francs that, due to the rapid appreciation of the franc, grew substantially over the past few years). While international corporations, banks, and consultancies have mushroomed all over the CEE area since 1990, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary have become virtual assembly lines for foreign producers that do not hold their Research and Development (R&D) departments in these nations and in many cases pay their taxes in other EU countries due to lower VAT laws and more precise regulations. As a result, although the economic system remains neoliberal in many ways, 70 percent of the entire tax burden in Poland is carried not by European or transnational enterprises, but by small and medium-sized firms of local origin.
Most Polish political parties since 1989 have become complicit in this imbalanced development, widely independent of their leftist or rightist inclinations, dragging their feet for decades on the necessary reforms of the health care, higher education, labor market, and pension systems. Against this backdrop, for many voters who completely adhere to democratic values, Poland’s political parties and governments have turned into guards of the numerous pathologies associated with CEE governance. In their view, the Polish society, like other CEE social systems, has taken a turn towards a sort of Latin American capitalism and away from the classical Western European welfare state, as prominent analysts such as David Ost et al have observed since 1994.
2) The superficial institutionalism of the EU
The perceived impact of Poland’s membership in the EU since 2004 on life quality, as seen by the voters, has remained marginal. Despite noticeable investments in infrastructure and human capital, the EU over the past years has not actively supported deeper governance reforms in any of its CEE member states, nor has it decisively helped in funding critical sub-systems, such as the higher education and health care systems. In addition, substantial disparities in EU-member treatment remain, a reality that is perceived as unjust by many CEE citizens. For example, direct EU payments to CEE farmers are dramatically lower than those to farmers in older EU member states: Polish farmers receive $1.67 billion annually, while French farmers receive $10.87 billion annually. This comes despite the fact that Poland’s population is more than half the size of France’s (38 million people versus 66 million), and Poland’s agricultural sector is (at least) similarly large in proportion to the population. In addition, the majority of EU funds spent in Poland end up returning to Western EU member states, as it is mostly Western European enterprises that build the infrastructure and usually carry out the bigger projects in CEE.
With all of this considered, the current institutionalism of the EU seems in general rather superficial and ineffective to many Poles. The EU is often perceived as being more characterized by the painstaking regulation of unimportant details than by genuine institutional, political, and financial support, help with long over-due reforms of CEE governance, a reasoned and balanced redistribution of welfare, and the promotion of equality between Western and CEE member states. At the same time, the EU has imposed budgetary discipline on the CEE countries, limiting their own capacities and margins for action (even in cases where there has been serious willingness to enact reform).
The electoral victory of the right in Poland must be read against these perceptions by a majority of Polish voters. It was not the fruit of a sudden “conservative turn,” sparked by the cunning motives of just a few astute anti-democratic politicians, as some Western observers depict. The truth is that the realities on the ground have been widely neglected both by the Polish and CEE governments, and by EU institutions and partner countries. It is no coincidence that, paradoxically, the conservative governments in Poland and Hungary immediately after coming into power embraced “neo-leftist” redistributive measures, common in Western welfare states such as Germany and France, that were largely omitted by previous governments in the CEE area.
In such a difficult and complex framework, what could a pro-positive perspective toward re-alignment and a new phase of cooperation between the European partners look like?
Considering the socio-historical developments of recent years, it is most important that in talks between the EU and Poland about the future of democracy, the rule of law, and participation in Central Eastern Europe, the historical governance problems of the post-communist CEE area are included and addressed in joint manners. Reforms are unavoidable. The question has now become how Poland and the EU can cooperate in implementing change together by using best practice examples from other member states, instead of employing confrontation and emergency psychology.
At the same time, the European unification project is facing a broader discussion about inequality amongst its member states, both between the Northern and Southern states on the one hand and its Eastern and Western member nations on the other. Recent “Brexit” tremors are indicative of this phenomenon. Deeper reforms of the EU as a whole seem therefore to be inevitable and to be as much necessary as they are needed by Poland and the CEE in their own right.
In this sense, the upcoming “structured” discussions on the future of Poland’s governance should be viewed by Poland, the CEE nations, and the EU not only as a chance to move the CEE area forward by seriously discussing substantial and non-superficial reforms, but also as a way to introduce changes to the EU that forge a new relationship between the union’s institutions and member states. As debate ensues over what type of community the EU is supposed to be, the current case of Poland could become a catalyst for a renovation of the European project, if confrontation is substituted for dialogue and cooperation. That would require a new era of mutual trust. Both Poland and the EU would be well advised to take this chance for joint reform and innovation seriously – because if wasted, it might become the last of such opportunities for years to come.