Nationalism and Conservatism in Europe: the case of Poland

Andrzej Duda, president of Poland, during the presidential campaign of 2020. Credits: International Politics and Society (IPS)

by Asia Corsano

With the fall of the Soviet Union and the consequent fall of the communist regime in the country, Poland experienced an incredible economic transformation – from a planned, backwards economy over the period of the Soviet control to an advanced, continuously growing one that managed to endure the 2007-2008 financial crisis and, more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic. On the other hand, from the political point of view Poland did not follow the same path considering the nationalist, conservative government that has arisen in the last years, which put in jeopardy the achievements concerning civil and social rights.


The origins of Polish nationalism

The elements at the core of Polish nationalism are religion and the unfortunate history of the country. As far as religion is concerned, It is estimated that 91% of the total population is Catholic, and the Catholic Church not only is a religious landmark, but also a social and cultural one. This trait strengthened during the Cold War, especially after the Polish Karol Wojtyla was elected Pope in 1978. From that moment, the Church became a fundamental reference point of the anti-communist war, also thanks to the support given to the Solidarity movement, and still has a very active role in the country’s political life. Due to this strong relationship with the Catholic Church, Poland considers itself as the last landmark and protector of Catholicism in Eastern Europe, since its neighbouring countries are mostly protestant or orthodox.

History played an important role as well. Poland was historically disputed among the European powers and often subdued to foreign domination. Over the years, nationalism became a form of resistance against the oppressor and helped create a sense of belonging able to restore the conscience of a Polish nation. The concept of the “polish tragedy” persists in the political discourse, and it is used to justify some of the two main characteristics of the Polish foreign policy – the constant fear of being conquered again and consequently the aim to eliminate every threat that comes from outside the Polish borders, and the perception of Russia as the enemy, that led the Polish government to strongly rely on NATO.

The rise of the Law and Justice party

The main party in Poland is Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, PiS), a far-right party with a conservative, populist, and xenophobic ideology, which includes in its ranks Andrzej Duda, President of the country since 2015, and Mateusz Morawiecki, the Prime Minister.

The party was founded in 2001, and it heavily opposes abortion, euthanasia, civil unions, and same-sex marriage; due to the strong influence of Catholicism, homosexuals are considered as enemies, together with immigrants. As for the foreign policy, the PiS is Atlantist, but Eurosceptic, as well as wary of Russia.

In 2015, Law and Justice won both the parliamentary and presidential elections, and for the first time in the history of the democratic Poland, it has been the only winning party and had had the possibility to form a government without negotiating for an eventual coalition. The success of Law and Justice can be explained by a series of factors: the interference of the Catholic Church, that publicly supported Law and Justice during the electoral campaign; the Ukrainian and other migration crises of that time, used by PiS to convince the public opinion that Russia had the intention to take Poland back and the government wasn’t able to defend the borders, and that immigrants and the pro-immigration policies adopted by the EU constituted a threat to the national identity; finally, the general dissatisfaction with the political institutions and representatives, considered corrupted and unable to make Poland a protagonist in the international scenario.

Law and Justice won the elections again in 2020, retaining its position as ruling party and with Duda being re-elected as President.

The controversies with the EU

Since Law and Justice came into power, Poland has engaged in a series of controversies with the European Union. The party puts a lot of emphasis on the concept of sovereignty, linked to the capacity of the country to defend its national interests with other international actors and being a strong actor itself in global politics, and sees the European Union as an organization in decline that cannot guarantee stability anymore. This explains why the Polish government has continuously challenged the EU in the last few years. One of the first controversies took place during the migration crisis in 2015, when Poland closed its borders and refused to welcome the 100 refugees that had to be distributed in its territory according to decisions 2015/1523 and 2015/1601 of the European Commission on the allocation of refugees in the whole union. The decision was explained by the Polish government as a “way to protect Poland from the Islamic threat” and resulted in the Commission initiating an infringement procedure against Poland. Still, the Polish government refused to accept the European Court’s sentence, establishing that Poland violated the European Union Law.

Two more recent disputes happened in 2020. Firstly, Poland threatened to veto the Next Generation EU plan for the economic recovery of the EU after the COVID-19 crisis if the EU did not cancel the clause that linked the disbursement of the funds with the respect of the rule of law (Poland, together with Hungary, had already faced accusations of the non-respect of rule of law). Secondly, Poland implemented a reform of the judiciary that essentially eliminated the independence of the judiciary from the government and substituted the appointed judges with people close to the Law and Justice Party. Both decisions inevitably caused a negative reaction from the EU, which called out Poland’s antidemocratic actions.

Poland keeping challenging the EU could, in the long run, have negative consequences. If, on the one hand, it is obvious that the nationalist Polish government will do everything to defend what considers its vital national interests, on the other hand Poland is still the first beneficiary of the structural funds of the EU, and a temporary stop of the funds or an ejection from the organization would strongly damage its economy, as well as its position in the international scenario, which is so important for Law and Justice.

The violation of human rights

The Law and Justice party became a protagonist in the international system also for its systematic human rights violations. An event that strongly caught the eye of the international public opinion was the abortion ban of 2020. Poland already had a very limited abortion law, however, with the October 2020 reform, abortion became practically forbidden in the country. The decision caused the rise of Strajk Kobiet movement, which protested against the government and was supported by politicians and citizens worldwide, but was not able to reverse the reform. The latter was enacted even if both the EU and the UN criticized it, defining it an “evident violation of women basic rights”.

Other violations perpetrated by the Polish government include the limited freedom of religion, with religions different from Catholicism often unable to find a worship place or simply a place to promote its ideals because of a lack of issued permits; the institution of anti-LGBTQ+ zones in the rural area of the country, from which people belonging to this community are banned; the media being increasingly controlled by the government; the discrimination of migrants and homosexuals.