The proponents of European integration in Poland have recently had reasons to celebrate.

Donald Tusk was once again elected as President of the European Council, despite the protests of our Euro-sceptics.

The European Union taught Kaczyński and his people a lesson in diplomacy, taking them down a peg in response to their attempts at blackmail. A Milward Brown survey from a few days ago has brought good news: Poles do not accept the current governments scepticism towards a deeper integration, being overwhelmingly (79%) in favour of being part of the “EU core” should such a core be soon established.

Many a little bird is already chirping that PiS’s anti-European policies will, sooner or later, hit a wall of opposition from the most pro-European nation in the EU. The case of Donald Tusk will be a breaking point and all the opposition has to do is skilfully take advantage of the opportunity to steer Poland back were it belongs and where the Poles wish it to be- the main current of European integration.

It is a pleasant story, understandable in an atmosphere of euphoria, but it has two serious flaws.

  • Firstly, it erroneously interprets the public mood regarding European integration (the theory concerning the deeply pro-European attitudes of Poles).
  • Secondly, it does not specify what exactly is the “core of the EU” or the “main current”, that the majority of Poles supposedly want to be part of.

In a report published in December 2016 by the Stefan Batory Foundation, of which I am one of the authors (together with Adam Balcer, Grzegorz Gromadzki and Eugeniusz Smolar), we showed that:

  • PiS’s Euro-sceptical attitude is much more accepted than their opponents - who like to trot out Poles’ 80% support for our membership in the EU - believe.
  • Becoming part of the “core of the integration” will not be possible without significant changes in the attitudes of the political elites (not just those who belong to PiS) and the views of citizens.

The fact that a great majority of Poles supports membership in the EU doesn't tell us much about what direction they want our countries policies to go- after all, PiS does not support Polexit either. Foreign and European politics do not happen in a vacuum, and the way the public perceives them are influenced by the values and emotions dominant in that public.

The three most important questions

  1. How do we define our identity and national community in relation to the rest of the world?
  2. Are we ready to take responsibility bear responsibility in the world?
  3. What are the EU and the West to us?

If PiS’s attitude toward EU issues can be described as opposed to deeper integration, distrustful towards western partners, critical of the western model of society, unwilling to compromise and focused on the narrowly defined national interests, then

it is reflected in the attitudes of a much larger part of Polish society than those who criticise the government would like to believe.

Not my problem?

In Poland, the “not my problem” attitude has more supporters than in most other EU countries.

65% of Poles, for instance, agrees with the opinion that “a country should first of all take care of its own issues and allow other countries to deal with their issues as best they can”. Only 21% feel that their country should “help other countries”.

Only Greece (83%), Hungary (77%) and Italy (67%) had a higher percentage of people believing that a country should focus on its own issues- but these are countries which have recently been particularly impacted by the migration crisis and the crisis of the Euro.

The fact that our willingness to take on responsibility in the world is limited is evidenced by our attitude towards military power: Poles believe in its effectiveness but are not themselves willing to risk their lives in support of issues important to them.

Fighting terrorism is one example. Fear of muslim terrorism in Poland is the highest in Europe, just as the belief that using military force is the best way to fight it (52% of Poles believe this). But as much as 73% of Polish citizens is opposed to our participation in any military operation against the Islamic State.

Hostility towards others is on the rise

Being “pro-European” is more than just the willingness to be part of the EU and benefit from being a member, but also an openness towards others and readiness to stand with them.

Meanwhile, hostility towards other nations is systematically rising. Between 2010 and 2016, it grew in the case of almost every nation the Centre fro Public Opinion Research asked about (from a couple to almost 20%). Xenophobia is on the rise particularly among young people.

When PiS criticises the western societal model and the attempts to impose it through the EU, we must remember that they are referring to a set of values (lets call the social conservatism) which is strongly rooted in Poland and differentiates it from the majority of EU countries (the definition of national identity, the significance of religion, views on abortion, homosexuals or muslims).

This makes Poles very open to the “Polish values are under siege” rhetoric.

Interestingly, despite the general euro-enthusiasm, 37% of Poles believe our country could better deal with the challenges of the future if it were not part of the EU (the average among surveyed countries was 33%). Over half of the respondents were of the opposite opinion- 51%.

In other words,

almost 40% of Poles do not believe the EU to be the only route Poland’s development could take in the future.

The great majority of Poles do not want to exit the EU, but, immediately after the Brexit referendum, almost 27% of the youngest citizens (18-25 years old) were proponents of such a scenario.

Poles are a long way from the euro

If we consider the future “core of the EU”, towards which Poles are purportedly so enthusiastic, then the eurozone will undoubtedly be a key element of it.

And yet, in March 2016, as may as 65% of Poles felt that we should not adopt the euro, and one 13% were of the opinion that we should set aside the zloty as soon as possible.

Their negative attitude towards the euro set Poles apart from Central Europe. According to surveys conducted in May 2016 by Eurobarometer, most Croatians, Romanians and Hungarians had positive views regarding becoming part of the eurozone.

Sovereignty above all else

In a survey conducted in February 2016, over a third (35%) of Poles felt that EU membership overly limits the sovereignty and independence of our country ( in previous years the percentage was actually even a bit higher- in the fall of 2015 it was 38%). Although more than half (52%) of Polish people is of the opposite opinion, the number is still significant- PiS can successfully dress these feelings with their rhetoric and policies.

Also in OKO.press’ survey, the “more Europe” model (closer cooperation of the member states and increasing the role of the European Commission) received as much support - as a way to fight the european crisis- at the “less Europe” model (limiting cooperation to economic issues and a greater independence of member states), though Polish women were more pro-european.

What does this all mean?

Firs of all, the anti-eu and anti-western rhetoric PiS uses, and which we will likely be hearing a lot more of, can resonate with the views of a significant part of the population- much more numerous than the core electorate of the ruling party and opponents of the EU.

Secondly, the willingness of Poles to become part of the “core of the EU” is a myth.

Should the EU become stratified, its “core” will be determined primarily by the eurozone, cooperation in regards to migration and asylum issues and defence.

Neither the Polish political elites nor the Polish people are ready today to participate in any of these projects and to take on some of the costs related to them (accepting a common currency, accepting refugees, integrating defence system).

Thus, if the opposition wants Poland to become part o the future “main current” of integration, they should not comfort themselves with Tusk’s success and surveys which prove very little, but rather identify good arguments in support of taking certain steps. They must first convince themselves, then convince a large number of Polish citizens.

Piotr Buras is the director of the Warsaw division of the European Council on Foreign Relations think tank, an expert on European and German issues.



Piotr Buras

Dyrektor Warszawskiego Biura Europejskiej Rady Spraw Zagranicznych (ECFR). Publicysta i ekspert do spraw polityki europejskiej i Niemiec. W latach 2008–2012 stały współpracownik „Gazety Wyborczej” w Berlinie. Ostatnio opublikował m.in. Nowy rozdział. Transformacja Unii Europejskiej a Polska (z Szymonem Ananiczem i Agnieszką Smoleńską, Warszawa 2021), Partnerstwo dla Rozszerzenia: nowa oferta UE dla Ukrainy i nie tylko (z Kaiem-Olafem Langiem, Warszawa 2022), Zeitenwende. Jak wojna w Ukrainie zmienia Niemcy (Warszawa 2023). Redaktor i współautor opublikowanego niedawno raportu Fundacji Batorego Powrót do Europy. Rekomendacje dla polskiej polityki w UE