Will Poland Leave The EU? Historic Election Sparks “Polexit” Fears
The Polish government has frequently clashed with the European Union, stoking fears that a “Polexit” may be on the horizon, depending on the results of the country's upcoming election where a far-right anti-EU party could play the role of kingmaker.
On Sunday, Polish voters will go to the polls in what opposition leader Donald Tusk called “the most important election since 1989," when Poland held the first free elections after the fall of communism.
The election follows a bitterly-fought campaign between the right-wing ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), and the liberal-centrist opposition, Civic Coalition (KO). Poll numbers remain close, with 37% of voters supporting PiS, and 30% supporting the main opposition coalition.
With neither major party expected to win a majority in parliament, extra attention has fallen on smaller parties which may help the largest party form a governing coalition.
Konfederacja (Confederation), a far-right party, is marked as a potential kingmaker, to form a coalition with the current conservative ruling party. This has prompted a range of fears about policies that Konfederacja could impose on a future government — chief among them is the specter that it could push PiS to follow the UK's Brexit, and pull out of the European Union.
It's a scenario that some have dubbed: Polexit.
More than half of opposition supporters are concerned that if PiS wins the elections, it will seek an exit from the EU, according to an IBRiS poll reported on Polish news site Interia.
Clashes with the EU
Mentzen has since retracted this statement, claiming that his remarks were taken out of context. Still Konfederacia has maintained its opposition to Poland's membership in the EU.
Though PiS has denied “Polexit” plans, the opposition insists that Poland’s future in the EU is at risk. "I know ... that they are planning systematically, in cold blood, to take Poland out of the European Union," opposition leader Donald Tusk told supporters. He also repeated the statement in an interview on Polsat News.
Since the PiS government came to power in 2015, Poland has had a fraught relationship with the European Union.
Poles continue to be widely supportive of EU membership.
In 2016, a decision by the the Polish government to pass a law allowing the Finance Minister to hire and fire senior management of the country's public TV, radio and press agency sparked concerns within the European Broadcasting Union, who wrote to Poland's then-president, Andrzej Duda, in an attempt to convince him not to sign it into law.
The law would have been the first time since the fall of communism that the government had near-total control of the state media. The law was criticized in Poland as well, and a recent study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford found that since 2014, Poles' trust in the news media has declined by 14%. Trust in the state broadcaster, TVP, fell to record low levels this year.
In 2020, fears of a Polish withdrawal from the EU came up once again after Poland threatened to veto the EU budget when other member countries voted to block funding to countries found to have violated the rule of law.
Sławomir Mentzen during a recent talk with supporters.
Public opinion still supports EU membership
This year, the Polish government and the EU once again entered the fray after Poland, Slovakia and Hungary violated the EU's single market rules. EU officials accused the Polish government of seeking campaign clout rather than cooperation.
“It’s not about economic concerns anymore, but about national political goals,” an EU diplomat told Politico Europe. “We already knew that, but now it’s out in the open and clear to everyone."
But despite frequent clashes with the EU, Poles continue to be widely supportive of EU membership, and view it as a positive force. In a 2022 Pew Research Survey, over 80% of Poles responded that the EU promotes democratic values and prosperity.
One PiS official described Poland’s position in the EU as “political enslavement."
In addition to this, Poland has widely benefited from EU membership since its entry in 2004, which encouraged economic development at home and allowed Polish workers to seek higher-paying jobs abroad.
“Millions of Poles, including PiS voters, have already become accustomed to traveling throughout the EU for tourist and business purposes, and thousands of young people study abroad using EU programs," former Polish parliamentarian Witold Gamodmski wrote for Polish dailyGazeta Wyborcza. Gamodmski argues that leaving the EU would put Poland on a “Belarussian path," towards authoritarianism and Russian influence.
But the rhetoric of the ruling party and far-right Polish politicians, which often use language invoking German or Soviet occupation, has made Polexit fears persist. One PiS official described Poland’s position in the EU as “political enslavement."
A telling magazine cover
Any consideration of a departure from the EU would also inevitably affect Poland's place in the Western coalition in support of its neighbor Ukraine following Russia's invasion. Warsaw's initial strong support has weakened in recent months ahead of Sunday's election.
Last month, the cover of conservative Polish weekly, Do Rzeczy featured an essay arguing for a Polish EU exit, with the headline “Yes. We have to leave the European Union," publishing an essay arguing for this exact cause which stoked fears that a coalition government between Morawiecki and Mentzen may pave the way for Polexit.
Wojciech Orliński, writing for Gazeta Wyborcza, said that the conservative PiS leaders have made it clear that they will give in to Konfederacja on the issue of the EU. “I appeal to everyone to think about this before the elections," he wrote. "An independent victory for PiS is basically out of the question — so that would leave them in a coalition with a party that is openly anti-EU."
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