Polexit: 3 reasons why Poland will quit the EU and 3 why it won’t

The budget fight is highlighting tensions over Poland's place in the bloc.

Polexit: 3 reasons why Poland will quit the EU and 3 why it won’t

The recent Polish threat to veto the EU’s budget has ignited a discussion about the country’s future in the bloc.

Earlier this month, the Polish government joined Hungary in blocking the EU’s €1.8 trillion budget and pandemic recovery fund because it includes a mechanism linking the bloc’s money with the rule of law.

That’s prompted the opposition to warn that Poland is on track to quit the EU — a so-called Polexit. Their worry is that government rhetoric painting the EU as an alien and unfriendly force will end up tainting the Union and eventually create momentum to leave — as happened with the U.K.

“The government doesn’t have the mandate to take us out of the Union without asking the nation,” Tomasz Grodzki, the speaker of the opposition-controlled Senate, said in a Friday evening national address.

There’s an increasingly anti-Brussels tone from ministers and senior politicians belonging to the right-wing ruling coalition led by the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party as well as their media allies.

Last week, the right-wing Do Rzeczy weekly — which often serves as a government mouthpiece — published a cover saying: “We have to tell the Union: Enough. Polexit — we have the right to talk about it.”

Despite the rhetoric, the government insists it has no intention of leaving the EU, but simply wants it to be true to its original purpose — a loose grouping of nation states and not a liberal federalist project.

“We say a loud ‘Yes’ to the European Union and say a loud ‘No’ to oppressive mechanisms,” said Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.

At the same time, it’s clear that Poland’s illiberal democracy and strong words from its leading politicians on everything from the rule of law to abortion and LGBTQI rights make the country an increasingly awkward fit with the rest of the EU.

Here are some reasons why Poland may end up outside the bloc and some why it won’t:

Should it go?

1. Poland’s values are out of synch with many other EU countries

When PiS politicians explain why they vetoed the budget deal, they rarely use terms like “money” or “funds.” Instead, they tend to refer to ideology, sovereignty and civilization.

Agreeing to rule of law conditions in the budget would be a “loss of sovereignty for our country,” PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński said earlier this month.

That underscores the true nature of the fight between Brussels and Warsaw — it’s less about policy and more about values.

PiS coalition politicians tend to paint the EU as an ultra-left project led by fuzzy-minded idealogues, or as a front to boost Germany’s control over the bloc.

“Germany can’t lecture us about rule of law. Germany hasn’t paid even €1 for its previous lessons of rule of law in Poland,” said PiS MEP Patryk Jaki, referring to Germany’s wartime occupation of Poland.

It doesn’t matter if the discussion is about the rule of law, climate goals, abortion or protection of LGBTQI rights — many PiS politicians see it as the EU imposing “Western” or “liberal” values on conservative and Christian Poland. The government recently even opposed a gender equality plan for EU foreign policy and the bloc’s artificial intelligence strategy because they included the word “gender.”

The values component makes it difficult for Warsaw and Brussels to find common ground on policies. “We’re on the right side of history, and those who want to take away our sovereignty based on their own whims are headed for a fall,” Kaczyński said in a recent interview.

2. There’s increasing anti-EU sentiment among some government backers

Poland’s officials don’t seem to like the EU and its institutions and officials very much — why would they want to stay?

Morawiecki made a recent speech to the Polish parliament defending the budgetary veto in which he likened the bloc to Poland’s former communist regime, railed against “arbitrary decisions” by “Eurocrats” and “the European oligarchy.”

On Friday, Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek lashed out after the European Parliament chastised Poland for tightening abortion rules. “In Europe, we’ve reached a level worse than the Soviet Union and communism,” he told Polish television.

At the same time, high-level officials stress that they’re not Polexit fans.

“Polexit is absolutely absurd. No important political group … has ever formulated such a demand,” said Zbigniew Rau, Poland’s minister of foreign affairs.

But opposition parties insist that while withdrawal from the bloc might not be on PiS’s immediate agenda, its actions might lead to that outcome.

“It’s time to sound the alarm,” tweeted Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska, a top opposition MP. “What happened in the U.K. is starting here. We need to stop it.”

The EU budget fight is also prompting a round of attacks on the EU from lower-level politicians.

Janusz Kowalski, deputy minister of state assets, recently tweeted that “membership in the EU is one of the tools to achieve the goal which is the grandeur of Poland. Only. And never the reverse.” He also tweeted that the enormous flow of EU structural funds that helped modernize Poland pales into insignificance when compared to the profits that Western investors extract from Poland.

3. Being in the EU might not be in Kaczyński’s long-term interest

Ultimately the decision about Poland’s future in the EU is likely to be taken by Kaczyński, who is Poland’s de facto ruler. And for the 71-year-old Kaczyński the EU isn’t central to his vision of rebuilding Poland from the ground up. He aims to cut the country off from the years of reform dating back to the end of communism in 1989 — a period he characterizes as riddled with corruption and insider dealing.

For that project to succeed, PiS needs to tighten its grip on the courts, media and other institutions and build up its own loyal cadres and elites. The government has already said it has no intention of backing away from further legal changes that have soured relations with Brussels.

People like Education Minister Czarnek are in charge of molding the school system to turn out people with traditional and patriotic values — something that might push the country even further out of the EU mainstream.

Or should it stay?

1. The EU is overwhelmingly popular among Poles

Unlike their government, Poles are among the most euro-enthusiastic nations in the bloc. In the 2003 accession referendum, 74 percent of voters backed joining the EU, and they’ve become even more pro-EU since then.

That’s not much of a surprise: Polish people have greatly benefited from the perks of the single market and EU funds. Since 2004 Poland has received a net €127 billion, more than any other member country. That money has transformed Poland, paying for roads, bridges, schools, sewage plants and football pitches. Since 2004, more than 2 million Poles have taken advantage of the freedom of movement to work abroad.

According to government estimates, Poland would get €139 billion in funds and roughly €34 billion in loans from the next budget and the Recovery Mechanism currently being blocked by the Polish and Hungarian governments.

The veto threat hasn’t changed those feelings: 81 percent would vote to stay in the EU if there were a referendum, according to a new opinion poll. Another poll finds 73 percent of Poles back the idea of linking rule of law to the budget.

2. Leaving would blow up the economy

Brexit negotiations are proving how difficult it is to disentangle a member country’s economy from the rest of the EU’s single market. In the case of Poland, such fragmentation would not only be more difficult than for the U.K. — it would most likely be catastrophic.

Polish companies export and import predominantly within the EU’s single market — in 2018, almost 80 percent of exports went to the EU and 58 percent of Polish imports came from the EU’s internal market. The country’s booming economy has sucked in massive levels of foreign investment which have turned Poland into one of the EU’s industrial workshops.

EU funds and participation in the single market have hugely contributed to the increase of wealth among Poles: their income per capita increased from 45 percent of the EU’s average in 2004 to 70 percent in 2017, according to Eurostat — the best outcome in Poland’s 1,000-year history.

While the U.K. is the world’s sixth-largest economy, Poland is 22nd and much more reliant on its ties to the rest of the EU. Withdrawing from the EU and setting up tariff and trade barriers would send the economy into a tailspin.

3. Poland has bad experiences with being alone in the world

Poland is going through the most secure and prosperous period in at least four centuries. Its ties to NATO and the EU have removed it from the Kremlin’s sphere of influence — but that could change if Poland returned to the status of being alone in the harsh political realities of Central Europe.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, the nationalists in Warsaw sought a common cause with those in Washington. But Joe Biden doesn’t share Trump’s disdain for the EU. That’s a problem for the U.K., and would be an even bigger one for a non-EU Poland.

Polish officials often highlight the importance of other regional alliances such as the Visegrad Group of Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, or the Three Seas Initiative — aimed at linking up countries between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas. But all of those countries are also EU members, so it’s hard to imagine that they’d prioritize their relationship with Warsaw over Brussels.