What we can notice in Poland right now is the unbelievable division of society. Interview with Józef Niżnik, Professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw

1. In one of your most recent written contribution on Euroscepticism (Are There Positive Effects of Euroscepticism? in United by or Against Euroscepticism?, Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), you differentiate between soft and hard Euroscepticism and you carry on with this differentation within each category, assigning it to either ideological or merely tactical reasons. In your opinion, what is the underlying force driving the Polish Eurosceptic discourse?

In general, the majority of the Polish people is in favor of European integration. Therefore Eurosceptical statements made by some politicians appeal to the deep layers of national sentiments which have been nourished in Polish literature and art for centuries, after the disappearance of the Polish state at the end of the 18th century and then during the decades of enforced communist ruling. Although there are small parties for which the decisive factor in their Euroscepticism is the ideological-nationalistic aspect, the current ruling party – Law and Justice Party – uses the same nationalistic arguments for tactical reasons. Its aim at home is to attract some of the supporters of the more radical nationalistic groups and revive nationalistic sentiments among citizens who have been so far inactive in politics.

2. In the same article, Are There Positive Effects of Euroscepticism?, you propose an original perspective to this phenomenon. According to the article premise, the level of popular knowledge on EU-related facts increases when public attention is given to EU topics, even when the discussion as such has Eurosceptic grounds. Would you say that the latest political debates have made the Polish more aware of the EU laws and principles?

Indeed, the Eurosceptic arguments underlying the Polish public discourse have increased interest in the aims and principles of European integration. However, this process influences the public in an uneven manner. Its effects are more likely among more educated people and the result may be a stronger polarization of the Polish society. However, the current ruling party, which is openly heading for authoritarian rules, is building public support by appealing to populist economic decisions which,  in the long run, can lead to the economic disaster and, in consequence, to a loss of their electorate precisely in favor of the strongly pro-European public. A significant part of population is already looking already toward the European Union for assistance and the pictures of mass demonstrations against violating (by the Law and Justice party) democratic principles are full of EU flags together with the national ones.

3. In August 2015, His Excellency Marek Szczygiel, Ambassador of the Republic of Poland in Romania, mentioned in an interview to convorbirieuropene.eu that Poland registered the highest level of commitment to the EU among the Member States and that even farmers, traditionally Eurosceptics, changed their views and became EU-supporters. Still, the October elections invested the Eurosceptic Law and Justice Party with the majority of votes. How could you evaluate this apparenlty paradoxical situation?

The Law and Justice Party did not expose Eurosceptic arguments during the electoral campaign. Instead, the campaign focused on a variety of social proposals – quite devastating to the economic prospects of the country – such as the special monthly payment of 500 zlotys for each child in the family or lowering the age of retirement, which had been raised by the previous government. Eurosceptic arguments were hidden for example in the postulate of regaining or strengthening national sovereignty,  which were likely to be accepted – without reflection – in a society brought up in the tradition of the fight for independence. The current surveys still show strong support of Poles for European integration despite some displays of Euroscepticism of the current government. In fact, we can already observe signs of withdrawal from anti-European statements made by public officials.

4. The new media law generated opposing attitudes that transcended the national borders. Seen either as a threat to European values, on the one hand, or as a matter of concern solely to the Polish government on the other, the law proposal has attracted international attention. To what degree should the new media law influence the European Commission’s agenda?

Indeed, the new media law in Poland is a serious threat to the democratic principles. However, the control of the media is limited to the so called ‘public media’. A significant part of TV and radio stations is in private hands. The majority of radio stations audience listens to private stations. Also, immediately after the takeover of the public TV by the current ruling party its audience dropped dramatically. Therefore, the effects of new media law will be much smaller than it was expected by its promoters. Nevertheless, international pressure may additionally help in limiting their appetite for control of peoples’ minds. Unfortunately, the European Commission has very limited instruments to force changes in this area in any member state.

5. How does the Polish media depict the criticisms between the current government and the German representatives? Have the historical difficulties between the two countries been brought to life during these events? Is the conflict of declarations considered serious enough to downgrade the cooperation between Poland and Germany?

The reactions of the European institutions’ representatives to the authoritarian moves made by the Polish government differed depending on various situations. The biggest attention has been attracted by the measures which were aimed at limiting the power of the Constitutional Court. The public (government-controlled) media presented the corresponding foreign declarations as unacceptable and ‘anti-Polish’. The private media, although some of them also commented on some of the declarations as ‘too strong’ or ‘going too far’, usually showed satisfaction that the internal opposition to the authoritarian decisions received such a strong and critical attention abroad. As it happened, at least two of the prominent EU personalities expressing such critical stances were German. Therefore, the official coverage by the public media emphasized the fact that criticisms came from German personalities. I believe, though, that this will be just a temporary episode, not enough to downgrade the cooperation between Poland and Germany. Of course, the lack of professionalism that characterizes the current leadership of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs may add further, more destructive factors in this area.

6. How do the differences of opinion at the political level translate into people’s everyday life? How could you describe the current atmosphere in Warsaw?

What we can notice in Poland right now is the unbelievable division of society, which is deliberately deepened by the current government. After all, those who do not support the Law and Justice Party have been named by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of this party, “worse sort of people”. In effect many people protesting on the streets of Warsaw against the government were wearing the labels reading “worse sort”. Also the internet is full of jokes making fun of the new rulers. This, however, does not eliminate the deep polarization and discord in society, which will be difficult to fix and can seriously threaten the future of the country.

Józef Niżnik is a Professor at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology from the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw and Head of the European Studies Unit. His research work has focused on the philosophy of social sciences and sociology of knowledge and, since 1989, to global problems and European integration issues. An impressive list of publications both in in the Polish and the English language under his signature reflects his interests and valuable contribution to the field of social sciences.

This interview was made by Anca Ulman, PhD Candidate at SNSPA??????????

About the Author