Who’s calling for Polexit?

A recent statement by a conservative member of Poland’s parliament once again brought the issue of a possible Polish withdrawal from the European Union — a “Polexit” — to the forefront of international attention. However, many Polish people and those within the EU are worried about a possible withdrawal.

Janusz Kowalski, a member of parliament for the hyper-conservative United Right coalition, stated that if the EU continues to treat Poland “like a colony,” then the country should look to Britain’s 2016 referendum for inspiration. Kowalski believes Poland should reevaluate its own relationship with the EU by 2027. 

While representatives for the ruling Polish Law and Justice (PiS) party have strongly denied any intentions to hold a referendum on Poland’s membership in the EU, the Polish opposition bloc claims that the comment made by the coalition member, “reveal the Polexit scenario that the PiS leader and his team are writing for Poland.”

Polish citizens seem to disagree with how legitimate these fears of a Polexit are. According to the most recent Eurobarometer survey, 84% of supporters of the Civic Coalition, the opposition to PiS, fear a Polexit, while 89% of PiS supporters claim to have no fear of an exit. 

However, across party lines, one thing is clear: Polish people do not want to leave the EU, with a whopping 88% wanting the country to stay within the union. In fact, when compared to citizens in other EU member states, more Poles consider themselves EU citizens than non-Poles. 

So why would PiS, a party that ran on nationalist-populist rhetoric, steer Poland towards a future its people obviously don’t want?

The answer is simple: PiS wants to maintain its power and the EU is in its way.

Tensions between the EU and the PiS have increased since the party’s election in 2015. Since then, the PiS has attempted a series of judicial reforms aimed at increasing their political control over Polish judges. The EU repeatedly warned the Polish government against these reforms, eventually leading to the suspension of Poland’s EU voting rights in 2017 and the imposition of a fine of €1 million every day by the European Court of Justice. More changes to the Polish judiciary system in 2018 prompted further intervention from the EU, as the Polish National Judicial Council had its membership suspended from the European Network of Councils. In 2019, PiS attempted a complete overhaul of the judicial system, which the Polish Supreme Court warned challenged the primacy of EU law over national law. The proposed judicial changes would have essentially granted President Andrzej Duda the ability to personally select the judges that rule on the country’s Supreme Court, giving the party extensive control over the country’s judiciary. 

Along with these repeated disputes over judicial reforms, Poland and the EU continue to clash over various human rights issues. This includes Poland’s harsh anti-LGBT policies, its highly controversial anti-abortion laws, and most recently, the migrant crisis at its eastern border. Despite large-scale protests by Polish citizens, the party continues to use Christian nationalist rhetoric to justify its radically conservative actions to the EU. Through its statewide control of the media, PiS is able to portray Poland as a subjugated nation whose sovereignty and religious freedom are constantly challenged by the oppressively democratic European Union. Drawing upon the country’s long history of invasion and colonization, PiS is able to paint the EU as an imperial force infringing on the country’s national rights. Not only does this further the divide between the EU and Poland, but by tying support for Polish “sovereignty” to support for PiS, this rhetoric manipulates citizens while disempowering governmental opposition. 

As the Polish government continues to challenge the EU, an attempt at a PiS-led Polexit seems almost inevitable. An emancipated Poland would allow the government to no longer be held to the legal and ethical standards of the EU, granting the party complete control over the institutions which check their power. As can be seen from the party’s attempted judicial reforms, a PiS without accountability could lead to the rapid unraveling of democracy in the country.

A referendum for a Polish exit from the EU will depend entirely on the people. As of now, it seems as if the people of Poland want to stay a part of the EU. But with the government’s control on the media increasing and the rise of ethnonationalism in the country, everything can change by Kowalski’s proposed 2027. 

While there is no clear pathway to diffuse these continued tensions between Poland and the EU, it is becoming more and more evident that the conflict is not with the country itself, but with a ruling party intent on maximizing and securing its power by exploiting its citizens’ desires for self-determination.

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