Since its election in October 2015, Poland’s new government has been criticised by many in the media as nationalistic, eurosceptic and right-wing. The Economist has called it ‘far right’, branding Poland ‘Europe’s new headache’. Within days of winning the elections, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) tightened its grip on the judiciary, the security services and the civil service and, most recently, started sacking public media bosses and replacing them with its own candidates. The European Commission has expressed concern that Poland is descending into an illiberal democracy, unrepresentative of EU values.
So is Poland’s government really ultra-conservative, eurosceptic and nationalistic? Not exactly, said Krzystof Szczerski – President Andrzej Duda’s foreign policy advisor and rising star in the party ranks since 2007 – when he came to Chatham House last week.
‘We are conservative, yes,’ Szczerski admitted. ‘We believe in individual freedom and collective responsibility.’ But he was emphatic that the PiS government is patriotic, not nationalistic. They believe, quite simply, that Polish interests come first.
‘I suppose you’re surprised I’m not here in a black uniform carrying a gun’, he quipped in response to allegations by Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, that PiS are a ‘semi-fascist’ and propagating ‘a dangerous Putinisation’ of Poland.
‘Is there really no difference between Putin and PiS?’ asked an exasperated Szczerski, who’d come straight from ‘a grilling’ at the BBC as part of his Poland-PR-rescue tour of London.
Poland’s line on Russia is very decisive, in fact – deeming the Russian invasion of Crimea a violation of international law, with Szczerski adamant that the EU would have to uphold sanctions against Russia or risk losing credibility.
And he refuted the accusation that Poland had become Putinist under PiS. In response to charges that PiS are staging a take-over of the media and legal institutions, he argued that Donald Tusk had done the same thing in one night when he came to power.
But two wrongs don’t make a right, do they?
‘We are asking for fairness,’ said Szczerski, pointing out that PiS has 45 percent of the population’s support: a full 5 percent more than it had at the time of the election.
Poland is not Eurosceptic either, he asserted, despite disinformation from Brussels and the media on the subject. Such a stance would simply not be to Poland’s advantage – as history has shown, the country has invariably suffered when Europe was divided: ‘always a victim of the concert of superpowers’.
But this doesn’t mean Poland can’t be critical of the current state of the EU – which, Szczerski believes, has become hierarchical. As an example, he compared Poland and Malta: though clearly unequal in their capacity, they’re nonetheless on a par in their interests with respect to the EU. Yet Poland feels there’s no equality at the decision table, with certain states – like Germany – calling all the shots: particularly when it comes to migration.
Poland has been criticised for refusing to participate in a quota system, which would distribute migrants fairly around Europe to relieve countries on the EU’s southern borders who are currently bearing the brunt of the influx from Syria.
Poland, though, is securing a 1200km border without EU assistance, Szczerski pointed out: the border it shares with Russia, Belarus and Ukraine: ‘Poland is a responsible EU member when it comes to migration’.
The country doesn’t support the EU’s migration policy, and believes a quota system would be a disaster. Attempts to allocate migrants to Poland have so far failed, since most move on to Germany or Sweden within two months of arrival.
Szczerski gave the example of Croatia, where out of 60,000 migrants allocated, only six stayed. And Poland does take migrants, he added – anyone who applies for asylum via legal paths gets it but even they don’t seem to want to stay.
Among the EU’s benefits for Poland is of course free movement of labour. But David Cameron wants to curb benefits for EU migrants in the UK: the topic of the EU summit due to take place that same evening.
Szczerski said Cameron’s proposals were not acceptable to Poland, which feels an EU settlement might set an example for loss of freedom of movement around Europe. If anything, they would like the deal to be very specific to the UK, and not to serve as a model for the rest of the EU. He did concede that the UK’s non-contributory benefits system needed to be addressed.
Yet benefits, Szczerski stressed, are not what Poles are after. ‘If you know Poles, you’ll know they aren’t lying in bed. They are studying or working.
‘Poland would obviously like to have all the Poles back in Poland. But I’m not sure if certain sectors in the UK could survive without them…’