Recently, Polish authorities demanded €1.3 trillion from Germany as reparations for the damages incurred during the Second World War. While such a demand is not new, it was the first time Poland officially requested such an amount from Germany. Many pundits consider this move as part of the populist strategy of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). Given that elections will be held next year, such maneuvering from PiS is often depicted as a political game.
Representative democracy is indeed about winning elections. Olaf Scholz in Germany, Emmanuel Macron in France, and leaders in other democracies try different political strategies to persuade the voters. However, reviving ghosts of the past and inflaming “national feelings”, as the Polish ruling party does, can amount to playing with fire.
Populist parties are on the rise in Europe
Aside from the historical and legal complexity of the issue, Poland’s claim for reparations appeals to the national sentiments of the Poles. Moreover, parties that appeal to national feelings are on the rise all over Europe. The success of Sweden Democrats in Sweden and Meloni’s Fratelli D’Italia in Italy are the latest examples of this phenomenon. On the other hand, we know only too well how infuriating public feelings directly led to numerous wars throughout history.
For the European Union, the PiS government in Poland can be a good starting point to confront populism within the Union. PiS has been in power for a relatively long time and is less skeptical of Europe as compared to other populist parties. Despite the latent criticisms directed at Europe, PiS still insists on preserving Poland’s place in the EU, but it is unclear how long this position will last. It should be noted that PiS made serious efforts to form a separate center of gravity in the EU alongside the Visegrad countries. There is also a possibility of creating a bloc with a strong anti-Russian stance, adopting harsher border policies on the refugee problem, and conflicting with the EU on national sovereignty issues by uniting with the Baltic countries and even with Ukraine. Poland has knitted a web of relations in this context. At the same time, despite all the actions unfavorably seen by Brussels, Poland’s population size and military gravitas make it a country that cannot be ignored.
The European liberal elites’ counter-discourse suggests that right-wing populist rhetoric appeals to the lower classes, which are, in turn, characterized as irrational and easily deceived. Such a view ignores these constituents’ demands for political agency. Yet, the problem lies right here. Today, European voters seem attracted by a language prioritizing national identity over other issues such as global warming, gender politics, and human rights. However, the tendency to portray these voters as backward and irrational appears to steer against established democratic processes.
People to whom the nation-state has promised political subjectivity as citizens have been increasingly pushed to the fringes of society over the past four decades with the transition to neoliberalism. Their share of income decreased day by day. In parallel, with the end of the Cold War and the decline of leftist politics, the politics that claimed to represent the working classes lost their attractiveness. In the meantime, the dominant liberal political discourse put its weight on issues such as racism, minority rights, and global warming, and mainstream left politics kept pace with this dominance.
The Polish case
Poland was one of the countries that lived through all these processes intensively. Beginning in 1989, it experienced a technocratic period of transition to a liberal economy. The most important characteristic of this period was that it was a top-down process based on the imitation of Western liberalism. As a result, Poland’s economy developed, becoming one of the most advanced eastern bloc countries, integrating with the Western economic system completely. Warsaw joined NATO in 1999 and the EU in 2004. However, different segments of society could not benefit equally from the growing prosperity.
Today, PiS, which keeps criticism towards the EU alive in its discourse and implements social policies for lower classes, has been governing alone since 2015. PiS promises to defend the interests of the Polish people, just as the far-right and right-wing populist European counterparts promised their voters.
The EU has had a problematic relationship with the PiS government, which will probably win its third term in power. While Poland played a leading role on behalf of the EU in the first months of the Ukraine war, many experts think this stance will only last for a while. The fact that the European Commission approved the fines imposed on Poland, reportedly because the PiS harmed the rule of law in Poland, indicates this orientation. Another manifestation is the Polish side’s continued criticism of the EU and the reopening of its demand for reparations for WWII from Germany.
The culprit: Neoliberal political economy
Brussels and Warsaw could take some tactical measures to sort out these problems. However, it is necessary to tackle the root cause, which lies in the neoliberal political economy that is mainly responsible not only for the PiS rise to power but also for the rise of other right-wing populist actors.
In Poland’s case, the starting point would be seeing the pathologies of the post-1989 period. Poland has become a new market for the liberal economy and a source of manpower. More than a million people emigrated to other EU countries after 2004. In this regard, it is not surprising that people, who did not get an equal share of income, lost their sense of control in this rapid transformation to a liberal economy.
The acceptance of neoliberalism as the norm and seeing it as “alternative-less” have turned the EU into a more technocratic administration with each passing day. The empowered European bureaucracy had more say in member countries’ affairs, continuously reducing the influence of the voters.
This aspect is the crux of the PiS response to allegations that it violated the rule of law. The Polish party claims that the law has been taken over by the liberal elites and must be returned to the people. Moreover, the party also criticizes the growing gap between the classes as they do not receive an equal share of economic development.
Within this political economy, right populist parties are calling out to people, promising them more political agency. It can be frightening that this commitment often includes racism and the abuse of minorities, especially immigrants.
An effective response can be produced by reading the context underpinning these discourses. In other words, the economic and bureaucratic structure pushing people out of the system is the core problem behind the rise of the far right.
Impact of global forces
Furthermore, global forces also feed this problem. Both Russia and the US hold very good relations with right-wing populist movements. Poland is emerging as one of NATO’s most important allies and remains Washington’s best partner in Europe, although it remains critical of the EU.
Meanwhile, Moscow provides financial support to many right-wing populist parties and uses them as Trojan horses within the EU. For example, Marine Le Pen took substantial loans from Russian banks for her election campaign, and this led her, in turn, to moderate her views on Russia’s military interventions. Hungary and Poland’s respective pro-Russian and pro-US positions illustrate this situation. Meloni’s pro-NATO/US stance and the German AfD’s warm relations with Russia show that similar dynamics unfold in other countries.
In sum, right-wing populist parties’ rise also jeopardizes the EU’s international posture. For the EU to be a force to reckon with in the international arena, it must exorcise the ghost of fascism and confront the political subjectivity demands of the European people.
This article originally appeared in the analysis section of the website Anadolu Agency.