>Poles together on the EU – probably


Friday morning found me sitting in the slightly faded elegance of a high ceilinged Georgian drawing room in the Polish Embassy in Grosvenor Square which served as venue for the Poland and the EU conference. The audience of about 100 is a varied mix Polish(-descended) or Polish-oriented academics, researchers, journalists and students with smaller scattering of people such as myself for whom Poland is just part of a wider East Central European beat. The morning began with an address from the Polish ambassador, Barbara Tuge-Erecińska, who stressed the commonality of interests between Poland and the UK on the future direction of the EU and the positive role that opening of UK labour markets has had in promoting Britain in Poland. A super-effective piece of public diplomacy worth any amount of more conventional initiatives, we were given to understand, although – she was far too diplomatic to mention – an inadvertent side effect of British civil servants’ underrestimation of numbers of Poles likely to come to the UK after accession.

The conference proper was kicked off by Aleks Szczerbiak with a presentation on Polish public opinion and the EU. Fresh from disillusioning liberal minded Polish students at SSEES with anticipations that Civic Platform would quickly splinter and Law and Justice might prove a political heavyweight that was down but not out, Aleks again offered a slightly against-the-grain take on Polish politics. Despite the high (and growing) popularity of the EU among much of the Polish public and the rise of the europhile Civic Platform and (crushing of anti-EU parties like the League of Polish Families (LPR) and Self-Defence) in last month’s elections, Polish europhilia was more a happy coming together of different factors than a profound trend. Public expectations in the run up to accession had been low and – thanks to the British and Irish governments’ politically miscalculated opening of their labour markets to new CEE member states – membership had delivered in precisely those areas where it was popularly offering the greatest immediate benefits: opportunities for Poles to work and study abroad. As agricultural subsidy for new member states came on tap, farmers had also gained far more on balance than they had anticipated. Moreover, Aleks argued, the Polish public still tended to view its country’s EU membership in somewhat brutally self-interested and instrumental terms as a source of external funding and a battleground for national interests. There was also an underlying concern about the position and power of Germany in the enlarged EU. In the longer term, I understood, there was still space for a revival of some form of euroscepticism. Moreover, as he later pointed out in the Q and A, high levels of trust in the EU and EU institutions are essentially the flip side of engrained distrust in national institutions: europhilia might – I understood – simply be a side effect of the dysfunctionality of Polish democracy (even EU membership formally gives it a Western seal of approval)

Jacek Kucharczyk of the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs (ISP) offered a slightly more sanguine assessment: there had, he suggests, been a genuine shift in Polish public opinion following accession and the pre-accession period he suggests would in hindsight come to be seen as the high watermark for radical eurosceptic parties like Self-Defence and the LPR; the crushing victory of Civic Platform was significant both as expressing a desire to express Polish Europeaness and national identity in new terms and in bringing to power a europhile liberal-peasant coalition with roots in co-operation in the European Parliament as part of the sprawling EPP faction; Europe was, moreover, an issue too lacking in salience to ever re-engage Polish voters, even assuming it ever engaged them in the first place (the rise of eurosceptic parties being, as several questioners later pointed out, more a facet of domestic issues, rather than concern over the EU per se). Simona Guerra then concluded the session with some discussion of focus research among students in Poland on attitudes to the EU: there are interesting regional variations and at aggregate level interesting correlations between Catholicism/religiosity and support the EU, most practicing Catholics tending to favour integration.

The conference then broke for lunch and – after a very tasty Polish buffet and an interesting conversation about the shift from the ‘JP2 [= John Paul II] generation’ to the ‘MP3 generation’ in Poland – I made a break of my own for Kings Cross to get home in time to take my daughter to Brownies. How many of these Polish-centred judgements, I wondered looking dozily out of the train window on the way home, were applicable more widely to other New Members States?Most lacked Poland’s size and sense of historical importance; Slovaks and Latvians had however, reaped a similar migration premium, Romanians and Bulgarians will not (at least in the immediate post-accession period); many Czechs might share the underlying discourse of ‘national interests’ and anxieties over Germany that seem to inform Polish debates at an underlying level.

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