The development of Poland since the EU accession in 2004 was often seen as a pioneering example for the recent history of the European integration, sending an important political signal for a common European future. In particular, Germany and Poland strove in numerous bilateral initiatives not only to develop closer political cooperation, but also to intensify their cultural exchange. Meanwhile, the tables have turned. After parliamentary elections in October 2015 the Cabinet of Beata Szydło set new targets for the country’s both domestic and international policy. This national-conservative backlash seems to fit into a broader spectrum of political developments in Europe, where alike moods are spreading among citizens. It seems that the European idea needs to renew its narrative by initiating discussion about the role of national identities in the European political culture.
Thus, on October 11, Das Progressive Zentrum hosted a Polish-German Roundtable focused on the future of Polish-German relations as well as the European Union in the context of the latest developments in Poland. Is an European Union based on diversity a realistic scenario or a fading dream? Can national identities coexist with European integration in a creative, not destructive, way? To answer these questions, four experts and opinion leaders were invited to trigger the discussion. The roundtable started with introductory contributions by Grażyna Plebanek, writer and author at POLITYKA weekly and Dr. Ireneusz Bil, Managing Director of the Amicus Europae Foundation in Warsaw. Two expert commentaries followed, by Dr. Ania Skrzypek, Senior Research Fellow in the Foundation for European Progressive Studies in Brussels and Michał Sutowski, Coordinator of the renowned Political Critique, a Warsaw-based think tank. The conclusions were initiated by Thomas Kralinski, the Head of the State Chancellery of Brandenburg, who joined the event and shared his reflections on preserving the future of good Polish-German neighbourhood relations.
The discussion was very broad, departing from the latest developments in Poland, tackling the general condition of the European Union and deliberating on the capacity of the progressive camp to overcome the general crisis of trust and high populist tide. The conclusions met during the meeting were, however, very clear.
Discussing the latest developments in Poland polarization and radicalization of the political discourse were highlighted. In the past, Poland was one of the most pro-European countries, drifting in the mainstream of the European Union. Joining the EU was perceived as an ultimate horizon, “the end of history”. Today, a new interpretation of history is applied, introducing the new champions of national movement while displacing the old heroes of Solidarity. History became a political tool as the national conservatives try to position themselves as the historically ‘right’, building their own narrative to institutionalize their vision of politics. Meaningful debate over real-life problems has been overshadowed by polarized moral and ethical discussions, debates on ‘who is right, who is wrong’. Two strong patterns within public language are distinctive: a metaphor of war with an antagonistic view on politics, and a metaphor of theater, where in post-truth politics truth is no longer a virtue. A question emerges, to what extent these divisions within the Polish society are genuinely Polish – and how much they reflect phenomena common along the European and global political trends?
The problem of a populist, national-conservative backlash or even openly fascist parties also exists in other European countries. Some politicians play with the ‘fear of strangers’, emphasize the importance of one-dimensional, nationalistic identity. 20 years ago the EU seemed to be an answer to globalisation, solution to inequalities. Today, the problem of growing chauvinism around Europe is not a problem of certain institutions or persons, but of certain general ideas: militant anti-liberalism as a sort of counter-culture of transformation and anti-establishment; misogyny in the name of ‘traditional values’ and creating phantom enemies, like immigrants, to mobilize and integrate people emotionally. Thus, developing an alternative – a new open, liberal, progressive, inclusive, solidaristic European identity – is the only solution. The progressive has to become more active and should not only react to the right-wing-movement. The future of social democracy also lies within the renewal of the European Union.
Regarding Polish-German relations, it is dangerous to end up in a discourse of identities as it usually ends up in antagonizing ‘us’ vs. ‘them’. Instead of providing a substitute drug for nationalisms, the problems of insufficient social cohesion and growing inequalities need to be solved. Poland and Germany were, are and always will be neighbours. Thus, it is important to develop sustainable good relations and cooperation networks, regardless of temporary political turmoils and moods. It is necessary to do networking in order to reduce divisions. Hope for democracy lies in the citizens’ movements – without hierarchy, based on personal links, aiming at a good civil discourse. The only balance to populist agenda is to communicate directly and organise against populist tricks. This could hopefully work for integration in Europe.
The event was organised within the framework of “Dialogue on Europe” Project, supported by the German Federal Foreign Ministry. Chatham House rule applied.