Polish Politics in 2012 (Part 5): The Eurozone crisis dominated the international scene

by Aleks Szczerbiak

This is the fifth of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2012.

For part 1, ‘A difficult year for the ruling Civic Platform’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/polish-politics-in-2012-part-1-a-difficult-year-for-the-ruling-civic-platform/

For part 2, ‘Strains in the governing coalition’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/16/polish-politics-in-2012-part-2-strains-in-the-governing-coalition/

For part 3, ‘The Law and Justice opposition struggled to find a winning formula’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/polish-politics-in-2012-part-3-the-law-and-justice-opposition-struggled-to-find-a-winning-formula/

For part 4, ‘’The left remained weak and divided’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2013/01/21/polish-politics-in-2012-part-4-the-left-remained-weak-and-divided/

Last year, European politics was overshadowed by the on-going Eurozone crisis and events at the European Union level impinged increasingly upon Polish domestic politics. This meant that debates over attitudes towards European integration inevitably became the international policy issue that dominated the Polish political scene. All Polish parties were concerned that the Eurozone countries, especially France and Germany, were increasingly assuming a greater leadership role within Europe and acting in ways that circumvented the EU institutions and crowded out states like Poland. The main objective of the European policy pursued by the Polish government, led by the centrist Civic Platform (PO), was, therefore, to prevent the EU from breaking up into the Eurozone and ‘other’ second tier members.

The government and prime minister and Civic Platform leader Donald Tusk used this argument to justify their support for closer German-led integration within the EU as the way for Poland to remain at the centre of the Union’s decision making core and part of what it termed the ‘European mainstream’. The Tusk administration thus defended its decision to participate in salvaging the single currency as an opportunity for Poland to gain influence upon the EU more generally. Warsaw was, for example, one of the 25 EU countries that signed the European fiscal treaty aimed at tightening budget discipline within the Eurozone. This was in spite of the fact that the government failed to achieve all of its negotiating demands aimed at ensuring that Poland would be involved in treaty summits where the most important decisions were to be taken. Moreover, the Tusk administration remained committed to Poland finding a safe way of adopting the Euro as a long-term strategic goal, in spite of the turbulence in the single currency zone.

Domestic political and economic constraints

However, the government was also concerned about the domestic political implications of signing up to new European initiatives and institutions which might impose compliance costs or have a negative impact on the Polish economy. This was a particularly sensitive issue given that it was not clear that Poland would be able to have a strong voice within these new supervisory mechanisms. It created tensions between domestic political imperatives and economic constraints, on the one hand, and the government’s strategy of trying to become a key EU player and part of the European ‘inner core’ on the other. As a consequence, for example, the Tusk administration sent out mixed messages as to whether Poland would be joining the proposed new EU banking union, which would give the European Central Bank supervisory power over all banks in the Eurozone, and included a mechanism for non-Euro countries to join on a voluntary basis. Initially it argued that it was not in Poland’s interests to join a body in which it did not have a vote while being subject to its decisions. However, it then seemed to adopt a more positive stance when the terms available for non-Eurozone countries to join the banking union’s decision making processes appeared to improve.

Civic Platform’s European policy was broadly supported by its junior coalition partner, the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL). It was also largely endorsed by the Civic Platform-nominated President of Poland Bronisław Komorowski, who remained Poland’s most popular politician throughout 2012, and the two smaller left-wing opposition parties: the anti-clerical liberal-left Palikot Movement (RP) and the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). However, it was strongly criticised by the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party – the main parliamentary opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s predecessor as prime minister. Law and Justice attacked the government for apparently failing to represent Poland’s interests effectively at the European level and lacking the will to stand up to the major EU states, particularly Germany. For example, Law and Justice argued that signing up to a fiscal treaty which gave Brussels more control over national budgets and finances was a threat to the country’s sovereignty and independence. Mr Kaczyński’s party was also very critical of the Tusk government’s decision to agree to offer financial assistance (via the IMF) to support Southern European Eurozone countries who were at risk but who, the party pointed out, had a higher standard of living than that enjoyed by Poland. More generally, Law and Justice argued that the government was too trustful of France and Germany and would have had a better chance of achieving its demands if it took a tougher negotiating line.

Poles remained strongly pro-EU, but were increasingly anti-Euro

Law and Justice was clearly hoping that, with the mood in Europe darkening and Poles feeling increasingly wary about the future of the integration project, the government’s strong pro-EU stance would turn from being a source of strength to one of weakness. However, although there was a small drop in levels of support over the last few years, Poles remained overwhelmingly supportive of EU membership. For example, a December 2012 survey by the CBOS polling agency found that 81% of respondents still supported Polish membership of the EU (albeit down from 89% in July 2007) while the number of opponents stood at only 15% (5% in July 2007).This was likely to continue to be the case as long as: Poles had access to Western labour markets and enjoyed free travel throughout the Schengen zone; and Poland received substantial regional aid from the EU budget.

Nonetheless, Mr Tusk’s government had to tread warily on this issue. For sure, the vast majority of Poles remained supportive of EU membership in principle and (in theory at least) wanted the country to be included in any EU decision making ‘inner core’. However, they were also strongly opposed to bailing out what they saw as richer but more profligate EU states and became increasingly hostile to Poland adopting the Euro currency. For example, a July 2012 CBOS survey found only 25% support for Poland adopting the Euro (compared to 53% in March 2009) and an increase in the number of those opposed from 38% to 68% over the same period. All of this created a further domestic political constraint on the government’s room for manouvre in supporting further European integration.