Brexit in Poland. Irrelevant but divisive

Given how consequential it may be for hundreds of thousands of Poles living in the United Kingdom, the question of Brexit is strangely absent from the public debate just before European elections. At the same time it is one of the core issues dividing the government and the opposition. How is it possible?

Brexit in Poland

Brexit? Bad but not so much…

At well over 900,000 people the Poles have become the UK's largest foreign-born community, overtaking migrants coming from India. It is hard to find anyone in Poland who since 2004 – the EU’s enlargement – has not migrated to the Isles even temporarily, or has no-one in their family who did so. But are the Poles who stayed in the country worried how British departure from the EU may affect them or their loved ones?

One of few surveys on Brexit commissioned by the Polish media found that in December 2018 almost all Poles (99%) knew about the fact Britain was supposed to leave the European Union but were still quite unsure about the effects of this decision. Although most of those asked (61,2%) claimed Brexit will have negative consequences for Poland as a country, a significant percentage believed that the results will be positive (10,2%) or their will be no consequences at all (15,1%). The rest (13,5%) simply had no idea what to make of the British departure. This level of disorientation is hardly surprising given the many twists and turns British political scene has undergone since the referendum. If the British themselves have difficulty in establishing what Brexit should actually mean and what future it may bring, people in other countries have every right to be confused as well.

And yet, one may argue, it is clear that majority of Poles seem to be afraid of how this first ever separation from the European community may affect them. Should it not provoke major political parties to actively mitigate these fears?

Not necessarily – when analysing social emotions one has to take into consideration not only their direction but also intensity. And in case of Brexit the latter does not seem to be a great one. In other words, Poles may believe it is unfortunate Britain is leaving the EU but it does not keep them awake at night. Two recent polls suggest that a few weeks before the elections Polish voters are occupied by matters of a more domestic nature.

An international survey conducted by YouGov for the European Council for Foreign Relations in 14 European countries found that “health, housing, unemployment, and living costs are standout issues in many countries” including Poland. The two most important issues for Poles are the state of the public health care system and the future of their pensions.

This result is corroborated by the data from another poll for a website “Ciekawe liczby” [“Interesting numbers”]. From it we learn that among a set of social and economic issues the improvement of the public health care system is of greatest concern to the majority of those surveyed (53%).

No wonder then that in campaign speeches made by the top government officials in recent months, remarks pertaining to Brexit are extremely difficult to find.

Forget Brexit. It’s Polexit

And yet – as mentioned above – British departure from the EU has indeed influenced Polish politics. In an unusual way, however. While the currently ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party has tried to focus the public debate on social issues, promising more financial support to diverse groups of voters, the opposition is trying to convince its electorate that the country is facing a “great choice” (pol. “wielki wybór”), between the East and the West.

“My strategic goal is simple: to firmly tie Poland to the West – politically, economically, educationally and scientifically, in terms of civilization”, Grzegorz Schetyna, the leader of the opposition told me in a recent interview.

“Somewhere between 2010-2015” Schetyna carried on, referring to the time his Civic Platform was in power, “we came to believe we had become a part of the West for good. Unfortunately PiS showed all this can be reversed. The party is building an Eastern model of state where everything: economy, politics, courts, banks and security forces are held in one hand. So the goal is not only to take back the power but also to use it in a way that would make another anti-Western turn in Poland impossible”.

Brexit has proved a very useful tool to make this message heard. Polish opposition has discovered that while Poles may not be very much afraid of Brexit itself, they are indeed anxious that Poland may one day follow in the British footsteps. To name the social emotion the media came up with a linguistically atrocious and hardly original term: Polexit. Politicians hostile to the current government, including the former prime minister and now the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, did not hesitate long to use it.

In November 2018 appearing in front of the Polish media Tusk said that “Polexit, that is Poland’s exit from the EU is unfortunately possible, not because Jarosław Kaczyński [the leader of PiS] has a plan to leave. The problem is that David Cameron did not have a plan to leave the EU either. And I’m afraid that the will to keep Poland in the EU at any cost will be slightly weaker than it is in case of Great Britain”.

In a public speech delivered in the city of Łódź  a few days later Tusk reiterated his warning. “I’m rather afraid of a British scenario. The more they do not want to leave the EU, the more they are actually leaving it” he said as the crowd applauded. And then, after quoting a few highly critical comments on the EU made by the top government officials he warned the audience once again: “There’s history in the making before our eyes and before our eyes a drama may unfold”.

Tusk and the rest of the opposition know what they are doing. Successive surveys have repeatedly shown Poles to be overwhelmingly pro-European. In a poll published days after Tusk’s speech 84 percent declared they would vote for Poland to stay in the EU should there be a referendum on this issue. Less than one in ten claimed the country should take the British example and leave.

In these circumstances the notion of “Polexit” may be extremely toxic to any party or politician associated with it. And the Law and Justice, with its many conflicts with the European Commission about the judicial reform, media freedom or even environmental policies has become an easy target. Ahead of the European election PiS is therefore trying to either play down any concerns about Poland’s position in the EU, or steer the discussion to different issues. The opposition is doing precisely the opposite.

Thus, while Brexit itself has failed to capture the nation’s attention, the fear of it being repeated in Poland has become one of the major political weapons.