The Limits of EUrope: Poland and Brexit

The Limits of EUrope: Poland and Brexit

Jan Grzymski

Brexit marks a very unexpected turn both in recent British political history and in the post-war history of the European continent. What seemed to be originally an attempt to resolve an internal problem of the Conservative Party, in which the 2016 referendum could have been just a trifling local British episode, turned into fundamental shift in Britain’s and Europe’s post-war history. For the very first time the European Union – after several decades of gradual ‘soft’ expansion – will shrink and its borders will change, not due to a military conflict nor as a result of its soft normative power of attraction of new members, but as a consequence of a decision by the population of a member state. We may say that Brexit signals a larger process of ‘de-Europeanization’ as a reverse to ‘Europeanization’ – the popular catch-phrase widely used by politicians, journalists and academics in the 1990’s and 2000’s to depict the EU’s normative impact and its capacity for peaceful, allegedly non-imperial expansion. The EU seemed unattractive to the British public and it clearly served as easy target to blame for everything beyond the EU’s impact on the UK itself – namely globalization, multiculturalism and the rule of cosmopolitan elites.

Nearly at the same time, the EU experienced another unexpected turn, this time on its eastern flank. After more than two decades of strenuous efforts to ‘catch up’ with EUrope, Poland – under the informal rule of Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of right-wing, conservative Law and Justice Party, which has been in power since 2015 – quite suddenly transformed itself from the leader of ‘the democratic transition’ and a front runner of ‘Europeanization’ into a troublesome member suffering the invocation of Article 7 of the Lisbon Treaty and possible sanctions, over the dismantling of its independent juridical system. As Article 7 applies to ‘a serious breach by a Member State of the values referred to in Article 2’, the Polish case may again serve as an example of the ongoing ‘de-Europeanization’ and an inability of the Union to act on the common ground of ‘European values’.

Hence, post-Brexit Britain and Kaczyński’s right-wing rule in Poland could be exemplary cases of ‘border countries’ indicating the limits of EUrope. Following Michel Foucault’s general advice on how to study power relations, by looking at the border – or from the border – one can learn more about a given polity than just looking at/from the centre. Studying the practices of power at the border reveals a key aspect of power practices of the entire polity. In this contribution, I will argue that both post-Brexit Britain and Kaczyński’s Poland – marking of course the physical border of the EU – delineate also the current limits of EUrope in terms of the EU’s normative and transformative power with regard to its own members.

There are many striking parallels between Britain just before the Brexit referendum (especially David Cameron’s positions before the decision to call the referendum and later those of the Leave camp) and Kaczyński’s Poland in their view on the European Union. They shared a view opposing enthusiastic accounts of ‘ever closer Union’ and of the constant progress of European integration, viewed by both as credulous, naive and consequently dangerous. In opposition to that, Brexiters and Kaczyński emphasized the need to strengthen local identities, drawing on a nostalgic view of their own history (Britain’s imperial past, Poland’s quasi imperial past). In both cases, they played the EU card for internal reasons, ignoring the potential long-term threat in relation to the EU. Both for the Brexiters and for Kaczyński’s right-wing Poland, the image of the EU is driven by an essentialist view of the EU as being ‘detached’, ‘bureaucratic’, ‘imposing its own interests against our sovereign interests’, driven by political correctness which – as they claimed – made Western Europe vulnerable to security problems. Both shared an anti-elite stance on politics, favouring listening to ‘the people’. Both condemned the migration policy of the EU, with the paradox that Nigel Farage centred its focus on ‘Polish cheap labour’ as a threat, while Kaczyński sees a problem with migrants as potential carrier of ‘very dangerous diseases long absent from Europe’. Both the Cameron government and Kaczyński’s Poland opposed the mandatory quota system for asylum seekers in the aftermath of the 2015 refugee crisis. As a result, both Brexiters and Kaczyński clearly contributed to the securitization of migration and the EU borders. They were building the impression that the EU was imposing something on Poland or the UK and that it restricted their own sovereign decisions, with the EU looking selectively at their problems. The Conservatives and Law and Justice are even members of the same fraction in the European Parliaments (European Conservatives and Reformists).

In the case of Poland, the recent overt disagreements between the European Commission and the Polish government has resulted in consideration of the prospect of a potential Polexit, something which was ferociously denied by the current Polish government officials. The question remains whether one needs to be officially out of the Union in order to be de facto excluded from it. The other question is what if, with the logic of playing the EU card for internal reasons, Kaczyński ends up in few years in a similar situation to David Cameron – for months and years openly criticizing the EU, then calling a referendum, in which within three months he would need to convince the Polish people that the EU is not so bad in the end. And – even taking into account that Poles are now predominantly pro-EU with approval rate between 70-80% – what, if Kaczyński also fails?

Poland obviously never endorsed the Leave Camp nor expressed any enthusiasm about Brexit. However, before the referendum, Jarosław Kaczyński was flirting with David Cameron to build a common bloc within the EU to oppose federalist visions of the Union. At the same time – as we could see – there are many surprising relevant similarities between the Leave Camp and the politics of the current Polish government, which shares to a large degree criticism of some aspects of the EU with the section of the British public which voted to Leave. But at the same time, the Polish government is acutely aware that Poland will suffer from Brexit in many respects. Brexit is undoubtedly against the vital interests of Poland. Not only it is against the interest of the large Polish diaspora in the UK, which would face uncertainty or might be openly unwelcome to stay any longer in the UK; Polish labour in the UK contributes to both the British and the Polish economy and hence both would probably suffer. Most importantly, the post-Brexit 27 member EU’s budget will be significantly smaller, and Poland has been receiving the largest share of the EU budget. Brexit will also change the balance of power within the EU, strengthening German-French cooperation and giving less political space for Poland.

Above all Brexit will create a new line of divisions across the European continent and it will constitute a novel kind of border of EUrope. The border between the post-Brexit UK and the EU 27 will be a variation of the current multiplicity of other kinds of borders: soft/hard, concentric circles, Norway-style border. Poland – as a new EU member and now having control over the ‘Eastern’ border of the EU – has been seen (before and after 2004) as being ‘on the edge of Europe’ and – at the same time – in the process of becoming ‘more European’. With the current assertive politics by the Polish government toward the European Commission (resulting in triggering of Art. 7), Poland will be placed (or it is placing itself) even further to the political edge of Europe – i.e. a peripheral position within concentric circles of integration. Hence, this will create again new lines of divisions between the EU core and the EU periphery. In such a perspective, post-Brexit UK and Poland could be seen as examples of a ‘de-Europeanization’ process, but with the UK being out of the EU, while Poland remains in the EU. All this creates a very specific background for analysing Poland’s view on Brexit. We could conclude that both Brexit and Poland’s policy within the EU now create a new kind of limit of the EU’s normative and transformative power: the UK being formally out of the EU, but relatively close to the EU’s norms and values, whereas Poland is formally in the EU, but relatively far away from EU norms and values.


Jan Grzymski, post-doc and lecturer in International Relations and European Studies at Lazarski University, Warsaw, Poland. His research mainly focuses on transformations of EUrope borders and identity in the context of the EU neighbourhood policy and Schengenland. Follow on ResearchGate and Twitter

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