Poland: Heading Towards ‘Polexit’?

Poland: Heading Towards ‘Polexit’?

Conflicts between the Polish government and the EU have raised concerns over their future relationship. Poland, once a shining example of post-communist recovery, has damaged its international reputation through controversial reforms and political battles with the EU, most recently attempting to block the EU budget. But are we heading towards ‘Polexit’?

EU leaders have recently reached a unanimous agreement over the €1.8tn budget and Covid recovery fund after initial opposition from Poland and Hungary centred on a clause tying payments to respecting the rule of law. Both countries argued that the measures extend too far, authorising political interference to penalise ideological non-conformity. The domestic pressures to reach some form of compromise, however, were intense as both countries would be net beneficiaries, and indeed, Poland and Hungary dropped their objections.

The EU convinced the two nations after a non-binding declaration assuring them that the mechanism will apply only to the next budget, with sanctions following only after the European Court of Justice (ECJ) rules on the legality of the provision. The issue has therefore effectively been delayed, and regardless of the legislation, only breaches relating to the EU’s financial interests, such as government corruption, are likely to be pursued.

The Road to Fragmentation

Ever since the election of Law and Justice in 2015, the country has been slipping towards authoritarianism as political control is asserted over the judiciary, media, and to counteract values opposed to the traditional ‘Catholic’ and nationalist vision. This has particularly been the case in relation to LGBT and abortion rights, as well as their image.

There is a clear and growing ideological divide in the EU as, despite high entrance standards, disciplinary measures for states already within the union are weak. In particular, Article 7 requires a level of unanimity non-existent within a union with states like Poland, Hungary, and Bulgaria.

The standoff ultimately represents an emerging cultural form of Euroscepticism, different to the one that has driven Britain out of the union. Poland, a country that has historically struggled to uphold its sovereignty, has a deep-rooted suspicion towards the motives of external players and their influence. As a net beneficiary, the economic motivation behind Euroscepticism is not a compelling narrative, unlike one tied to the negative motives of others. This resonates with the historical experience and is encapsulated by the words of Ziobro, the justice minister, who has referred to the rule of law clause as ‘institutional, political enslavement’ and a ‘radical reduction of sovereignty’.

The Depth of Euroscepticism

Despite clashes with the EU, the Polish public is overwhelmingly in favour of membership, with nine out of ten Poles expressing their support. Hence, it is vital not to misinterpret what is fundamentally a political game. Ultimately, Warsaw is not rejecting the union, which has after all disproportionately benefited it with infrastructure funds. The right-wing governing coalition has instead voiced and amplified previously existing cultural differences. In an effort to entrench power it has also triggered further political ones, and to this extent, its Euroscepticism shines in the international arena, whilst faltering in the domestic one.

Reconciling Interests

As already mentioned, the opposition is not to the idea of the EU as an entity, especially due to its economic benefits, but rather to the modernising vision which is far from universal across its borders. The message sent to Polish elites in the last few years has been that enrichment is possible even in the context of progressively eroding the pillars of democratic governance and the rule of law.

A policy paper from Law and Justice on ‘An Efficient and Modern Nation for 2030’ reaffirms the commitment to staying in the EU and to promoting its internal reformation so as to suit its goals. In essence, it wants to reconcile two interests: firstly, to keep the economic benefits of EU membership, and secondly, to further entrench the party’s role in Polish politics. These two have and will come into conflict. Law and Justice will likely attempt to maximise its power at home whilst minimising disciplinary measures from EU institutions.


Poland is a rising regional power, and this trend has been visible for some time, with Friedman predicting its growing geopolitical importance in the coming decades almost 12 years ago in his book ‘The Next 100 Years’. Indeed, this trend will only intensify as Poland, with its notoriously fast-growing economy, has suffered proportionately less economic damage than most European states during the COVID-19 pandemic. Warsaw will, in all likelihood, be at the vanguard of a collection of states that will protest further attempts at EU integration, but is unlikely to support exiting the EU until it is no longer a net beneficiary, which it will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

Categories: Europe, Politics

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