Polish Politics in 2013 (Part 5): Europe became a valence issue again?

by Aleks Szczerbiak

This is the fifth of a series of posts reviewing developments on the Polish political scene in 2013.

For part 1, ‘A year of crises for the ruling party’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/04/polish-politics-in-2013-part-1-a-year-of-crises-for-the-ruling-party/

For part 2, ‘The governing coalition remained stable despite strains’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/polish-politics-in-2013-part-2-the-governing-coalition-remained-stable-despite-strains/

For part 3, ‘Progress but lingering doubts for the Law and Justice opposition’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/11/polish-politics-in-2013-part-3-progress-but-lingering-doubts-for-the-law-and-justice-opposition/

For part 4, ‘The Democratic Left Alliance emerged as the new third force’, see: https://polishpoliticsblog.wordpress.com/2014/01/16/polish-politics-in-2013-part-4-the-democratic-left-alliance-emerged-as-the-new-third-force/

Last year, the debate over attitudes towards the European Union was once again the main foreign policy issue on the Polish political scene. At one point it appeared that the future of the European integration project was emerging as a substantial issue in its own right. However, as the year progressed, Poland-EU relations reverted to being a ‘valence’ issue where parties competed over which of them was the most competent to represent and advance Polish national interests.

An issue in its own right?

The issue of Poland-EU relations was highly contested in recent years by the two main parties: the centrist Civic Platform (PO), currently the main governing party led by prime minister Donald Tusk; and the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party, the main opposition grouping led by Jarosław Kaczyński, Mr Tusk’s predecessor as prime minister. However, these divisions were often not over the future of the European integration project as such. Rather they were subsumed within domestic politics, with the two parties treating relations with the EU as a so-called ‘valence’ issue; that is, one where they competed over which of them was most competent to pursue a shared goal – in this case, representing and advancing Polish national interests within the EU.

However, as the euro zone crisis unfolded there was some evidence that the Polish debate on Europe was becoming more about the substance of European integration itself rather than being simply an extension of domestic politics by other means. Indeed, at the start of last year, some commentators even suggested that Civic Platform was considering making Poland-EU relations in general, and adoption of the euro single currency in particular, more significant dimensions of party competition in the run up to the next parliamentary election, scheduled for autumn 2015.

Debate over the substance of European integration as an issue in its own right probably peaked last February when the Sejm, the more powerful lower house of the Polish parliament, discussed a bill on whether to ratify the European fiscal treaty aimed at strengthening budget discipline within the euro zone. The Civic Platform-led government argued that adopting the fiscal treaty would strengthen Poland’s position within the EU by allowing it to participate in summits which would decide on the future of the euro zone. This was felt to be crucial given that the single currency area was becoming the core of the European integration project and the Union’s decision making processes were being re-configured to reflect this.

Following the outbreak of the euro zone crisis, the Tusk administration’s main European policy objective was to prevent the EU from breaking up into the single currency area and ‘other’ second tier members. Repeatedly stressing its commitment to the European project, it used this argument to justify support for closer German-led integration within the EU and participation in initiatives aimed at salvaging the single currency such as the fiscal treaty. This, it argued, ensured that Poland remained part of the ‘European mainstream’ and at the centre of the Union’s decision making core.

Civic Platform’s European policy was broadly supported by its junior coalition partner, the agrarian Polish Peasant Party (PSL), and the Civic Platform-backed Polish President Bronisław Komorowski, who remained the country’s most popular politician throughout 2013. It was also largely endorsed by the two smaller left-wing opposition parties: the communist successor Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) and the anti-clerical liberal Palikot Movement (RP – re-branded as Your Movement [TR] in October); both of whom supported deeper European integration and rapid Polish accession to the euro zone. With these two parties joining the government in supporting ratification – and only Mr Kaczyński’s party and Solidaristic Poland (SP), a small Law and Justice breakaway grouping, voting against – the Sejm approved the fiscal treaty by 282 votes to 155.

However, both the government’s decision to sign up to the fiscal treaty specifically and its European policy more generally were strongly criticised by the Law and Justice opposition. This was partly on familiar ‘domestic politics’ lines: that the government was too trustful of, and lacked the will to stand up to, the major EU states, particularly Germany, and that it would have had a better chance of achieving its demands if it had taken a tougher negotiating line. However, since the outbreak of the euro zone crisis, Law and Justice also started to articulate a more fundamental, principled critique of Civic Platform’s support for deeper European integration. For example, it argued that signing up to the fiscal treaty was a threat to Poland’s national sovereignty and independence by giving more control over the country’s budget and finances to supranational institutions and other states without providing any compensatory gains.

Euro zone accession on the agenda

Debates on the fiscal treaty inevitably turned into discussions about Poland’s approach towards European integration more generally, and specifically on whether or not the country should join the euro zone. In spite of the turbulence in the single currency area, the Civic Platform-led government remained committed to Poland adopting the euro as a long-term strategic goal as part of its desire for the country to be at the centre of the EU’s decision-making core.

For its part, Law and Justice re-iterated its long-standing demand for a referendum to determine whether or not Poland should join the single currency area. However, following the onset of the euro zone crisis, Mr Kaczyński’s party also appeared to harden its earlier stance on this issue, that euro adoption should be delayed until the Polish economy was more closely aligned with the rest of the EU. It increasingly gave the impression that, given the euro zone’s huge internal problems, it could not envisage any point in the foreseeable future when it would be advantageous for Poland to adopt the euro.

The Law and Justice stance on this issue mattered because Poland could not join the euro zone without a change to its constitution which designated the National Bank of Poland as the only body that could set monetary policy and emit currency. A two-thirds parliamentary majority was required to pass an amendment that would give that role to the European Central Bank, and Mr Tusk’s administration lacked such a ‘constitutional’ majority even with the support of the smaller left-wing opposition parties.

Prioritising Europe was a risky strategy

However, as the year progressed Civic Platform began to send more mixed signals and appeared to back away from the idea of prioritising Europe as an issue in party competition. This was particularly evident in the way that Mr Tusk seemed to tone down his earlier enthusiasm for rapid Polish adoption of the euro. While continuing to say that Poland would work to fulfil the criteria needed to enter the euro zone as quickly as possible, he also stressed that the government did not have a target date and that this would not occur in the immediate future.

It was not surprising that the Tusk government decided to tread more warily, given the unpopularity of euro zone accession among the Polish public. For sure, although there was a drop in levels of enthusiasm over the last few years, the vast majority of Poles remained overwhelmingly pro-EU. For example, a May 2013 survey by the CBOS polling agency found that 72% of respondents still supported Polish EU membership (albeit down significantly from 89% in July 2007) while the number of opponents stood at 21% (only 5% in July 2007). This was likely to remain 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. However, Poles also became increasingly hostile to the single currency; a January-February 2013 CBOS survey, for example, found only 29% support for euro adoption compared to 53% in March 2009, and an increase in the number of those opposed from 38% to 64% over the same period.

At the same time, although Law and Justice appeared to sharpen its anti-integration stance since the start of the euro zone crisis, the party always had, in rhetorical terms at least, a broadly anti-federalist (sometimes verging on Eurosceptic) approach to European integration. Moreover, this ideological inter-governmentalism often gave way to a more integrationist approach in practice; particularly when Law and Justice was in government in 2005-7 and, for example, signed Poland up to the Lisbon treaty. Indeed, the party never actually opposed Polish adoption of the euro in principle and, even after the outbreak of the euro zone crisis, its formal position remained simply that the process should be delayed until it could be achieved without damaging the Polish economy and that any final decision be approved by a referendum.

A valence issue again?

There were, therefore, indications the party debate on Poland-EU relations was once again being subsumed within domestic politics as a valence issue. This could, for example, be seen clearly in the discussions on the outcome of negotiations on the 2014-20 EU budget which concluded in February. Although Poland once again emerged as the largest recipient of EU funds, both of the main parties claimed that the outcome vindicated their different strategies and approaches.

The Civic Platform-led government argued that the outcome was a triumph for the Polish negotiators, particularly at a time of economic crisis which inevitably limited the willingness of wealthier states to finance EU projects. In spite of the fact that the new budget saw the first ever overall spending reduction in the EU’s history, Poland managed to secure an overall increase in funding for the next seven years. Perhaps most significantly, the amount of money that the country would receive from so-called ‘cohesion funds’, which are distributed among the EU’s poorer members for infrastructure and other projects, increased to 303 billion zlotys. This was of huge symbolic importance because it fulfilled the 300 million zlotys target that Civic Platform had pledged to secure for Poland in the 2011 parliamentary election campaign; probably the party’s single most high profile and specific election promise. The ruling party claimed that its apparent success (Mr Tusk called it ‘one of the happiest days of my life’) was a vindication of its broader strategy of adopting a positive and constructive approach towards Warsaw’s main EU allies and locating Poland within the so-called ‘European mainstream’ as a reliable and stable member state.

Law and Justice, on the other hand, argued that Mr Tusk’s government could have secured an even better deal if it had adopted a tougher negotiating stance, taking advantage of the fact that EU budgets require unanimity and threatening a Polish veto. It claimed that, as a large poor country with a sizeable agricultural sector, Poland only received what was its due according the EU’s resource allocation model and less per head of the population than a number of neighbouring post-communist states. It also accused the Tusk administration of sacrificing rural communities so that it could fulfill Civic Platform’s election pledge on cohesion funding: pointing out that, while the level of direct subsidies to Polish farmers was set to increase, there would be a substantial cut in the funds allocated for rural development.

The May European Parliament (EP) elections, which are likely to be the biggest political event in Poland during the first half of 2014, might be expected to raise the profile of the European integration issue in Polish politics. However, experience suggests that all Polish elections, even European ones, are dominated by domestic rather than European or other international issues, except when the latter are framed as valence issues. Important as it will be as a test of party strength, the EP poll is, therefore, likely to be simply another ‘second-order’ national election.