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As Poland steps back from the precipice, others are ready to take the leap

There were signs that a political shockwave was coming to Poland this month when opposition parties organised the “March of a Million Hearts” ahead of the election on October 15th. Despite the close results, Donald Tusk, the opposition leader who ran Poland as Prime Minister from 2007-2014 before serving as EU President from 2014-2019, looks set to lead the next governing coalition in Poland. But behind closed doors, it is Brussels breathing a deep sigh of relief as Poland arrests its dizzying decline into what Hungarian leader Victor Orbán once proudly called ‘Illiberal Democracy’. 

Not only has Poland enacted some of the strictest abortion and LGBTQ+ laws in the EU, but the PiS party – which has governed Poland for 8 years – has comprehensively eroded the judiciary’s independence and hijacked the state TV channel. While the recent election in Poland may have been free, it was certainly not fair – with Tusk being painted as a puppet of Brussels and Berlin on the state broadcaster. Leading questions such as “Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa, in accordance with the forced relocation mechanism imposed by the European bureaucracy?” accompanied the ballot papers –an obvious attempt to sway the electorate. Such is the decline in standards of rule-of-law that the EU blocked Poland from receiving their €36bn share of the EU Recovery Fund, a fate only shared by Orbán’s Hungary. 

What do young Poles think about the EU and the direction their country is heading in?

I spoke to a group of Poles in their early twenties from Poznań to find out how young people perceived the changing political winds in their country. All four agreed that Poland had moved in a more Eurosceptic direction, diverging from their own pro-EU stances. Zofia and Uno, who both voted for the Left coalition (which looks set to prop up Tusk’s own Civic Coalition), told me that they were “scared that if the parliament [stayed] the same, we would have to leave the EU”. Maria, another Left coalition supporter, echoed that sentiment, fearing that “the violations of EU law […] could possibly harm our position in the EU”. 

While nobody thought a “Polexit” was imminent, the blame for the rise in Euroscepticism was laid squarely at the feet of the ruling PiS party. Michał, a Third Way voter (another ally of Tusk’s Civic Coalition), was more cynical about the ruling party’s motivations for demonising the EU, suggesting it was perhaps a populist stunt. A familiar tale of ‘Us’ vs ‘Them’ politics.

In all, it became clear that for these young Poles, the election was not decided on Poland’s relationship with the EU. Both Maria and Zofia explained that social issues such as women and LGBTQ+ rights were a greater driving force, with the latter clarifying that “I see the advantages of remaining in the EU in my everyday life, so I was never influenced by the rising Euroscepticism of our leading party”. The group did agree that Poland’s position in the EU was stronger as a result of the election. However, they seemed sceptical that the election would herald many great social changes. Zofia admitted that “[the new coalition] probably will not be as groundbreaking as some of us would hope”; Maria added that while she was still optimistic, her initial enthusiasm was “somewhat diminished after initial disputes within the opposition”. 

In any case, Poles have denied the PiS party an unprecedented third term in power. The EU lives to see another day and Orbán has lost a key ally in his fight against EU cooperation, even if Slovakia recently elected a pro-Russian leader. 

The looming threat of the far-right in France and Germany

Nonetheless, it would be foolish to see Poland as the bellwether of Euroscepticism. Indeed, the EU’s internal position is as vulnerable as ever. Even Germany and France, widely considered the two most influential countries in the European Union, are not safe from the rising tide of populism and support for Eurosceptic parties that are sweeping the continent.

Current polls in Germany indicate that support for the far-right AFD party has risen to a historic 22%, just behind the moderate conservative CDU/CSU party at 29%. The left-wing Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, has seen his share of support plummet to 16%; his governing coalition has the backing of just 35% of the electorate. Scholz is an increasingly unpopular figure, considered by many to have failed to contain the unfolding economic crisis. Only three in ten Germans are content with his leadership. Just like across Europe, each crisis makes far-right, Eurosceptic parties, once seen as an unthinkable choice for many, seem more and more palatable. 

In France, the perennial spectre of Marine Le Pen looms large, and her electoral results speak for themselves. In 2017, Le Pen achieved 34% of the votes in the second round of the French presidential election. In 2022, the share was 41.5%. With Macron barred by term limits from running in 2027, France once again considers its future. It seems that Le Pen’s far-right message is finding resonance among much of the French electorate. In 2017, her Rassemblement National party only had 8 seats in National Assembly, by 2022 that figure was 89 seats – making it the largest individual party in the opposition camp. Le Pen’s efforts to detoxify her party’s image and gain credibility amongst the electorate have opened the floodgates. Even Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the most influential left-wing politician in the country, is an outspoken critic of the European Union. 

Macron may have been successful in his two campaigns for president, but in the process, the centrist politician has obliterated the traditional left and right-wing parties in the country. When the dust settles, there is a considerable risk that the fractured and turbulent state of French politics may leave France with a Eurosceptic president.

How coalitions may bring the EU’s downfall

Of course, all this is not to say that there is any real appetite for a Brexit-style departure by any of the EU member states. It is rather that as support for more extreme, Eurosceptic parties grows and that translates into electoral successes, citizens of these countries may find that their governments start picking bigger fights with the EU, paralysing the institution in the process. As Radek Sikorski, the former Polish Foreign Secretary, explained, the PiS party gained power with only 38% of the vote in 2015 and then started packing the courts; it only took “an ideological sect and not much more than a third of the electorate to change the system”.

Across the continent, the far-right has found mixed success. While it is true that some countries, such as Spain, have seen their far-right parties lose support, more generally the trend has been heading in the opposite direction. Take Sweden and Finland for example: until last year, both countries were headed by staunchly pro-European Social Democrats, now the far-right Sweden Democrats and Finns Party prop up the governing conservative coalitions in their respective states. It is easy to see a future in which the far-right paralyses the EU by threatening to withdraw support from fragile coalitions.

The far-right: holding the EU hostage?

Italy is perhaps the best example of what the future looks like for EU states that turn to the far-right in the face of instability. Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy Party has post-fascist origins, and it is the most right-wing government in Italy since WW2. While on the domestic front, Meloni’s government has made good on its promise to enact a traditional, Catholic vision on the country, Meloni has needed to placate the concerns of her European counterparts. For example, despite her close ties with Viktor Orbán, Meloni has followed Poland’s lead in supporting Ukraine throughout the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. However, immigration remains a red line for Meloni, as it did for Poland. The unfolding crisis on the Italian island of Lampedusa led Italy to block the EU’s migrant redistribution programme and proposals relating to human rights guarantees. Meloni is now one of the most influential European leaders on immigration, ready to hold the institution hostage to enact her vision of a Fortress Europe.

While Eurosceptics may have narrowly missed out on an unprecedented third term in Poland, the future of European unity is put into question by the rise, in some cases meteoric, of parties across Europe that are completely opposed to the vision of further European integration.

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