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Poland's road to multiculturalism
Europe's new great power and its difficulties
Poland is a rising economic and military power in Europe, becoming a major player on the continent for the first time since the days of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The country’s role in the Three Seas Initiative reaffirms its leadership of central and eastern Europe, echoing the Intermarium after the First World War and its central position in the region before the partitions.
Yet, just as Poland has gained prestige and plaudits for its stance on Russia and its generosity towards Ukrainian refugees, it finds itself strangely lacking friends in the West. Its relations with the German government in particular have deteriorated sharply — while German nationalism is also on the rise — and it will come under increasing pressure to change in ways its people might not like.
Germany has been the moral lodestar for Anglophone liberals for many years, a feeling driven by despair over populism in the English-speaking world. Poland — or at least the Polish government — is in contrast seen as one of Europe’s black hats, not just conservative but potentially authoritarian, stuck in the bad boy corner with Hungary.
In The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk recently outlined the anti-populist view that the ruling PiS is implanting the ‘playbook’ of Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, eroding the independence of the judiciary and packing ‘a reformed Constitutional Tribunal, the body charged with judicial review in Poland, with political appointees who have the power to suspend judges who displease the government’.
He warned that:
The government also undermined the independence of the media. Public broadcasting channels turned into propaganda networks that dropped any pretense of neutrality. The coverage of senior officials borders on the hagiographic. Meanwhile, opposition figures are routinely smeared as lapdogs of Germany or Russia (or, somehow, both) – or as criminals, perverts, and pedophiles.
This makes the next weeks an especially perilous time for Polish democracy. If Law and Justice somehow manages to win re-election, further democratic backsliding seems almost inevitable.
A final uncertainty is whether the ruling party would accept the result if it lost, allowing a peaceful transfer of power despite its hold over the country’s institutions. During the campaign, Law and Justice has used all the levers at its disposal to gain unfair advantage. When Polish citizens go to vote, their ballot will include referendum questions tendentiously worded to insinuate that the opposition would sell off state assets to foreign entities, increase the retirement age, and flood the country with illegal immigrants. Such illicit tactics also raise the specter that the government might use its hold over the nation’s electoral commission to cheat if the opposition somehow prevails at the polls.
These fears seem unlikely, to put it mildly, although there are some things that certainly appear strange to outsiders, in particular Polish state TV being by most accounts comically biased towards the government, in a lumbering and unsubtle way.
Liberal norms take a long time to build, especially where civil society is weak. Poland is not just recovering from communism, but from the far more extreme trauma of Nazi rule, under which there was a determined and mostly successful attempt to destroy its urban elite, the occupiers singling out educated professionals in order to reduce the nation to serfdom. Poland has lacked an effective ruling class since; the old aristocracy, the szlachta, had often been resented, and the communist rulers who replaced them had risen up the ladder through ideological conformity.
The country suffers from a shortage of elite institutions found in Western Europe , which traditionally taught people how to rule — and behave. The new elites who arose after 1989 often lacked the sense of noblesse oblige necessary for a successful ruling class, and provoked resentment among those who had not done so well.
Upon taking power, and like many populist parties, PiS also struggled with the intellectual manpower to rule and, Poles say, often imposed local politicians who weren’t very effective. But, like elsewhere in central and eastern Europe where communists often rebranded themselves after 1989 as cuddly social democrats, corruption and populist language is found on both sides of the political divide.
But it would seem a huge exaggeration to call Poland a dictatorship in the waiting. For one thing, its conservative rulers are far too dependent on foreign investment to go down some authoritarian path, and some argue that what many object to is simply their conservatism.
The converse argument, made in spiked by Rafał Woś, is that Poles are being punished for their stance on immigration. He wrote: ‘Before PiS came to power, Polish political parties tended to imitate Western Europe, pursuing neoliberal economic policies alongside a broadly “progressive” agenda of social modernisation. PiS offered something different and still does, even after eight years in power. It combines left-wing economic populism with an unapologetic rejection of the liberal wokeism. And as a result, the EU establishment has attacked and scapegoated it ever since it came to power.’
Indeed, some worry that the Polish conservative establishment is too complacent about the threat from NGOs changing society outside of democratic channels. As an example, Green Border, a recent pro-migrant film which hugely angered the government, was funded by the opposition Warsaw City Council, which may be a taste of things to come if the election goes against PiS. This is small compared to the size of the British ‘blob’, for instance, where a vast network of taxpayer-funded institutions and charities push a political agenda, but it will only grow, especially with help from the EU.
Even the government’s takeover of the state broadcaster has left them more vulnerable in case of future defeat, stripping the best conservative journalists from independent outlets and so ensuring that there isn’t a right-wing media ecosystem in the event of opposition. This is in contrast to Hungary, where the Orbán government has built up a sort of conservative blob that would be very hard for the left to dismantle.
The Hungarians are extremely conscious of their small size and vulnerability, but they are also protected by their distinctiveness, in particular their impossible language. Poland is far larger, and far more important for progressives to win over, but, unlike the Hungarians, its rulers are also strangely parochial in not concerning themselves with making friends.
For the past decade or so, the two countries have been allies in the EU, in dispute with Brussels over a number of issues, but in particular migration and plans to distribute asylum seekers across the bloc.
These two central European countries have had amicable ties deep into history, although the war in Ukraine has weakened that relationship: Hungary, concerned about both its energy supply and the treatment of the Hungarian minority in Ukraine, is the most dovish on Russia, while Poland, for reasons you hardly need a history degree to understand, is the most hawkish; the far larger Polish minority in Ukraine were almost all ethnically cleansed by Stalin as a finale to that traumatic period which, most horrifically, saw the Nazis murder almost all the country’s 3 million Jews.
But despite their bloody history, Poland has been immensely supportive of Ukraine and incredibly generous to its people. It has taken in between 1 and 1.5 million refugees, on top of a similar number of Ukrainians who were already there. Around 77 per cent of the public had been involved in helping Ukrainians, ‘spending around 9–10 billion zloty (€1.93–2.14 billion) out of their own pockets’ on top of all the government’s help.
Even as war fatigue has mounted, Poles are still welcoming. The radical Right Konfederacja are the most hostile to incomers, but an anti-Ukrainian protest in Sanok in the east of the country attracted not a single participant, which made me rather sorry for the woman hosting the rally. Poles are in fact among the most tolerant of refugees, at least according to one poll.
There are certainly disputes with Ukraine, in particular over grain supplies. Indeed if and when the war ends, Poland might not be too happy about the EU accepting its neighbour as a member, with its potential for vast amounts of agricultural subsidy.
Relations with Ukraine were certainly not helped by the Canadian parliament’s bizarre decision to invite a 98-year-old former SS veteran, involved in a unit which murdered around 800 ethnic Poles in the village of Huta Pieniacka. Why no one in the parliament thought to wonder who a Ukrainian fighting the Soviets was actually fighting for remains a mystery, but the Poles were certainly not impressed; education minister Przemysław Czarnek (pronounced Shem-i-swav for those wondering) even called for the old man’s extradition.
Despite the praise it has received for its treatment of refugees, Poland also finds itself isolated in Europe, out of favour with the Franco–German core, and with few allies outside. In April, Emmanuel Macron called Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki ‘an extreme-right anti-Semite who bans LGBT people’, after the Polish leader had criticised his efforts to negotiate with Putin (even though Morawiecki has Jewish roots).
Relations with Germany are even worse, in particular spurred by the EU’s migration pact. In June, ‘the EU reached a consensus on key asylum and migration laws in the bloc’ which means countries would either have to take migrants or pay into a joint fund, something strongly opposed by Warsaw and Budapest. More troubling is that the German government is actively assisting people crossing into Europe, something which troubles both the Hungarians and Poles.
PiS presents itself as hardline on migration. It has successfully built a wall along the border with Belarus at a cost of around £300 million. And early in the year, the prime minister used footage of riots in France to illustrate his opposition to the EU’s migration pact.
The government will probably be helped by recent footage from Lampedusa, which has been shared widely, and which provoke widespread anxiety. Fans of Legia Warsaw recently held banners up at a game declaring that: ‘We don’t want Berlin, Lampedusa or France here – zero tolerance for migrants.’
But, like the Tories in Britain, PiS is also pro-migration in practice. By trying to fix that labour-profit-productivity problem through the easiest route, numbers have shot up, with 200,000 extra arrivals in two years – and that’s excluding Ukrainians. These include five-figure totals from India, Uzbekistan, Turkey, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Turkmenistan, among others. The country is also reeling from revelations that several hundred visas were sold to migrants, which opposition leader Donald Tusk called ‘probably the biggest scandal in Poland in the 21st century’.
This has also further worsened relations with Germany, the two countries already in a war of words over immigration. Germany has declared plans to introduce checks on its borders with Poland and Czechia to reduce the number of asylum seekers.
At a rally before last Sunday’s state elections in Bavaria and Hesse, Chancellor Olaf Scholz linked the country’s migrant crisis with PiS’s visa scandal, which provoked an angry rebuke from Poland’s foreign minister Zbigniew Rau.
Warsaw has even threatened to close the border with Germany to stop migrants coming in that direction, while some members of PiS have once again demanded reparations for Nazi Germany’s crimes, an idea mooted several times over the past year. Even to Polonophiles, the demands that Germany pay reparations of $1.3 trillion for a conflict which ended almost 80 years ago, and which no one alive had any hand in, look crass.
Yet, on the German side, it feels like politicians are looking for someone to blame for their migration problem — more than 200,000 people have requested asylum in the first eight months of this year, a year-on-year increase of 77 per cent.
And Germany’s migration crisis is entirely of its own making, in part stemming from Chancellor Merkel’s declaration Wir schaffen das (‘We can manage this’). The country has seen enormous demographic change in recent years, moving ‘from a largely mono-ethnic society to one in which, according to 2022 data, 28.7 per cent of the population were either born with a foreign passport or had one parent who was’.
This has provoked the rise of the radical Right, with Alternative für Deutschland now the largest party in four of the five former East German states; on Sunday, it became the second largest in Hesse, a wealthy region in the former West. Although on bad terms with Germany’s conservatives and liberals, Poles are also worried about the AfD, which has become increasingly extreme in its rhetoric, to the point of downplaying the atrocities of the War. All of this means that the Poles find themselves short of friends.
Germany is not alone in this huge change, for western countries like France, Britain, the Netherlands and Sweden have been transformed by migration, and for those of us who think that has made life less happy it’s strange to see Poland set to follow their lead.
Unlike in England or France, there are no bollards in public squares to protect against terrorism, no announcements on trains to watch out for suspicious behaviour. Poland has suffered little of the terrorism endured by western Europe, with no deaths and just one injury in politically motivated attacks since 2010, whereas England has seen dozens and France hundreds.
But whether the Poles want it or not, multiculturalism is coming. There are already growing numbers of Georgians, central Asians, and expanding communities from various Asian countries. Migration begets migration, becoming essentially unstoppable, and creates the interest groups – often funded by taxpayers in return for votes – that ensure diversity must always increase. Polish government leaders, even at the very top, don’t believe that Paris and London will happen to them. But then no one in England or France did either.
Foreigners with romantic ideals about another country are always going to be disappointed, but to an Englishman with an Irish Catholic mother raised on tales of Polish chivalry and heroism, this seems sad. Poland is upstream watching its friends cross the rapids to an unknown fate and seems intent on following the same course.