By Daniel Tilles
This week has seen a flurry of stories about the possibility of “Polexit”. The idea that Poland could leave the European Union has been advanced by Eurosceptics and Europhiles alike. Both are exaggerating, but that does not mean there is nothing to worry about.
Could Poland do better outside the EU?
A first wave of speculation was triggered by a Eurobarometer poll showing that, surprisingly, 47% of Poles agreed with the statement “our country could better face the future outside the EU”. This was the second-highest figure among all member states – higher even than Brexiting Britain.
47% Polaków uważa, że Polskę czeka lepsza przyszłość poza Unią Europejską. 45% uważa przeciwnie. 8 % nie wie.
To jest najbardziej przerażający sondaż jaki zdarzyło mi się widzieć w ostatnim czasie…
— Leszek Jażdżewski (@LesJazd) December 15, 2019
Among Polish opposition figures, the findings were seized upon as evidence to support the narrative that the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, which has repeatedly clashed with European partners abroad and stokes a tub-thumping, insular patriotism at home, is leading Poland out of the EU.
They were also exploited by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage, who tweeted that “more Poles now want to leave the EU than remain”. This was a false interpretation of the results, which in fact show only that 47% of respondents believe Poland could do better outside the EU, not that they actually want to leave.
Nevertheless, Farage then doubled down on his deception, declaring during a speech in the European Parliament the “great news that opinion polls now show a majority [sic] of Poles think they’d be better off outside the EU. Brexit is the beginning of the end of this [European] project.”
After three and a half years of deception, we will be leaving this prison of nations! Brexit is the beginning of the end of the EU. We can be friends without being ruled by faceless bureaucrats. pic.twitter.com/Pm1Ij0d3j8
— Nigel Farage (@Nigel_Farage) December 18, 2019
In actual fact, opinion polls show the very opposite of what Farage claims. Poland has consistently ranked as one of the most enthusiastic member states. Eurobarometer found this year that 68% of Poles say EU membership is a good thing for their country and only 5% see it as a bad thing. If a referendum on EU membership were held, 76% of Poles would vote to remain and only 9% to leave.
Likewise, the Pew Research Centre has every year since 2012 found Poland to have the most positive view of the EU among all the member states it surveys. This year, it found 84% of Poles to hold a favourable opinion of the EU, and only 14% unfavourable. The former figure has risen from 68% in 2013, showing that Poles are becoming more – not less – positive about membership.
The idea, therefore, that many – let alone a majority – of Poles would prefer to be outside the EU is patently false. While the Eurobarometer figures cited by Farage should not be dismissed entirely, they may turn out to be an anomaly. For the last six years, the proportion of Poles saying their country could do better outside the EU has remained steadily at around 36-38%. A jump this year to almost 50%, without any obvious cause, seems unlikely.
“No Polexit, just a wypierpol”
Yet while there is no popular demand for Polexit in Poland, some argue that the current government could, by accident or design, force the country out of the EU, or at least cause it to be effectively excluded.
This fear was expressed during a visit to Poland this week by Donald Tusk, the former prime minister and now president of the European People’s Party. Tusk was ostensibly visiting to promote his new book, a personal diary based on his time as head of the European Council. But whenever he is in his homeland, Tusk is above all there as an opponent of his political nemesis Jarosław Kaczyński and the PiS party he leads.
During a visit to Wrocław, Tusk said that “Poland is not threatened by a Polexit of the type that happened in Britain”. Kaczyński knows that “a large proportion of Poles see our place as in the EU”, so he would never risk openly pushing for a departure.
Instead, Tusk said, Poland could be heading for wypierpol – a word that is difficult to render into English but is a portmanteau of wypierdol (meaning something like “f**k off”) and Polska (Poland).This wypierpol, Tusk explained, would involve Poland not formally leaving the union, but instead being forced “to the periphery” as a result of violating European laws and norms.
The same warning was made even more forcefully this week by Poland’s Supreme Court, which has been a central target of PiS’s attempts to overhaul the judiciary. In a lengthy statement, the court said that newly proposed government legislation – which would introduce severe disciplinary measures (including dismissal) against judges who refuse to accept the validity of judicial reforms – would “infringe EU treaties” and “in the longer run [lead to] the need to leave the EU”.
The next day, experts from the Polish parliament’s own research bureau also issued an opinion stating that the new legislation would violate EU law. Last night, during a heated session of the parliamentary justice committee, PiS introduced amendments to soften the legislation at the last minute. But it remains unclear whether they will negate any or all of the previously expressed concerns.
The reason for PiS’s haste in pushing through the new disciplinary measures is two recent interlinked rulings by the Court of Justice of the European Union and the Polish Supreme Court, which effectively declared two institutions created or overhauled by PiS’s judicial reforms to be illegitimate. One of these is the body that nominates judges.
Given that PiS is refusing to accept the validity of those rulings – and is determined to discipline judges who do – a standoff looks set to develop that is unsustainable in the long, or even medium, term. Doubts and differing opinions over the validity of judges’ appointments and therefore the rulings they subsequently make could cause legal chaos, in Poland but also in the EU.
As such, it is possible that further rulings by the CJEU could, as Tusk has warned, effectively push Poland towards a kind of EU limbo. There is no formal mechanism to expel a member state, but Poland could excluded from certain aspects of the EU’s functioning, although Tusk and others among the Polish opposition have not made clear exactly how this would happen in practice.
However, as always much will come down to political expediency rather than legal arguments. The EU’s so-called “nuclear option” of Article 7 rule-of-law proceedings against Poland – which was launched in 2017 and could in theory lead to the country being stripped of its EU voting rights – has gone nowhere. And the likelihood of an eventual Hungarian veto means it is never likely to have any impact.
While the new Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen has spoken of the importance of enforcing rule-of-law standards, it remains to be seen whether she is serious about taking action against Poland, whose ruling party helped her win election. PiS itself, which has mastered the art of Brussels brinkmanship, may also tactically retreat if it sees the prospect of serious sanctions.
Other leading EU figures, however, have been much clearer in their impatience with Poland. A number of member states have expressed support for linking EU funds to compliance with rule-of-law standards, a measure aimed in particular at Poland and Hungary. French president Emmanuel Macron has also suggested that Poland will lose funds over its refusal to agree to EU carbon neutrality targets, and has said that he “does not want in Schengen” countries that refuse to “share the burden” of refugees.
Yet what is certain is that a British-style Polexit – based upon a popular mandate – is not on the cards. EU membership is popular in Poland, and likely to remain so (certainly as long as the country is a net recipient of European funds). Instead, if Poland does drift towards some form of exclusion, it will have been a situation engineered by its government, not something demanded by its people.
Daniel Tilles is editor-in-chief of Notes from Poland and assistant professor of history at the Pedagogical University of Krakow. He has written on Polish affairs for a wide range of publications, including Foreign Policy, POLITICO Europe, The Independent and Dziennik Gazeta Prawna.