Maciej Stasiński: Great Britain is leaving the European Union. As Timothy Garton Ash, Christian Davies, and Neal Ascherson have written, Great Britain is becoming little England. The Leave campaign was a terrible deception, much like the “Poland in ruins” slogan was here. Such a thing is possible even in the cradle of democracy and liberalism. What’s next for the European Union and Poland?
Sławomir Sierakowski: I was sure that Brexit would pass, just as I am sure that Donald Trump will win the presidential election in the United States. People never really believe that populists can win until they do—this is what happened in Poland with the election of President Andrzej Duda. He himself did not believe that he would win. It’s true that the campaign in Great Britain was one big absurd lie. And it’s true that those who will suffer the most as a result will be those who voted for Brexit.
But it’s the Brexiters—Farage, Trump, Le Pen, Wilders, Kaczynski, Orban—who are the most credible, even when they are lying. They are the only ones who give people a sense of influence, and that is the basis of democracy. I’m very sorry. They are the only ones who instill confidence that they will do what they say. When Clinton says that she will change America, no one believes her. When Trump says that he will deport Mexicans and ban Muslims, people believe him—and so do I. People like Trump used to be unelectable, but today it is mainstream politicians who are unelectable and lacking credibility.
In terms of credibility, that remains to be seen. Of the politicians you named, only Orban and Kaczynski are in power. No one knows what Trump, Le Pen, or Wilders would do if they won.
Sławomir SIERAKOWSKIis a Polish sociologist and political commentator. He is a founder and leader of Krytyka Polityczna.
Brexit is not Farage’s first victory. He was elected to the European Parliament in 2014, and then he achieved victory through David Cameron. In order to stay afloat, mainstream politicians are taking on populist platforms, which is a further victory for the populists. Cameron promised that he would elicit concessions from Brussels, and he did. But that did not help him in the end because people no longer wanted to believe him. Marine Le Pen is following a similar path. She won in the European elections and soon she will be president of France.
The West is slowly committing suicide. This has been going on for 30 years. Populist parties are proliferating in Europe—Mark Leonard calculates that there are already 47 of them. They are in power or sharing power in a third of European countries, and the trend is unambiguous. The mainstream is not ascendant anywhere—those who are ascendant are the politicians contesting the mainstream, usually populists. Fortuyn, Haider, Orban, Kaczynski, Klaus, Le Pen, etc.
The underlying cause is fundamental: people in Western democracies have lost their sense of agency. The economy has transcended national boundaries, and people are abandoning politicians because politicians can do disappointingly little. What did they do about the economic crisis? They saved the banks, and what then? And what about the refugee crisis? They let in a million people and then they started backtracking. What are they doing about terrorism? Why is the West unable to end the war in Syria or the fight against the Islamic State?
Why this impotence?
The nation is killing us. It is a poison that flows in our blood. It prevents us from uniting around supranational issues. Democracy cannot catch up with and keep an eye on the economy because nations will not let it transcend national boundaries. If we did allow that to happen, supranational democracy would regain its effectiveness, and people would regain their sense of influence. They would not have to vent their frustrations by voting for populists. When we don’t let the European Union truly integrate itself, we are giving ourselves over to control by the global economy. Or by nationalist populists.
People like Trump used to be unelectable, but today it is mainstream politicians who are unelectable and lacking credibility.
What can Polish politicians change when it comes to loans denominated in Swiss Francs? And what can the financial markets do? The markets control everything, because they decide the exchange rate and the interest rate, which in turn determines the financial security of 2.5 million people in Poland. If you look at who is leading the consumer rights campaign on behalf of Poles with CHF-denominated loans, this is a person who would support any nationalist idea. And so the mechanism is wound up. On the one hand we make demands of politicians, who themselves have less and less influence, and on the other hand we further deprive them of their influence by supporting nationalists.
Where did Brexit come from?
From the English countryside, where elderly people in towns of 30,000 don’t like the fact that they hear Polish in the pubs and on the streets. The staid Englishman cannot even imagine that someone would not speak English. He no longer feels at home. Poles and Romanians don’t even have to get drunk or steal. They are simply more visible than Pakistanis or Indians, who develop their own enclaves.
Let’s imagine that a European constitution had been ratified ten years ago. Not 300 pages long, but ten. We would have taken a significant step towards European democracy. But it was already too late. Nations got in the way, and the constitution failed in referendums in Holland and France. Nations are some kind of curse. A punishment for postmodernism. People wanted to have at least one fixed point of reference in an increasingly fluid reality. It is those who are worst off who will be forced to pay for this.
The tragedy lies in the fact that the weaker people are, the more they are inclined towards nationalism. Poles are a great example. Those who are weaker will not allow those who are stronger to save them by carrying out a jump in integration. Poles and others will block Germany in this regard.
Nations and democracies are at different stages of development in Europe. In Poland, they are in their infancy. I don’t know if in England nationalism won in the same way as in Poland, and if this is the same kind of nationalism. An elderly lady in a small town does not have to be a nationalist in order to feel uncomfortable surrounded by Poles. In the UK it seems that the old have ill-used the young, given that 75 percent of those under 24 voted for Remain, while 60 percent of those over 65 voted for Leave. It seems entirely possible that the British will regret what they’ve done and hold another referendum.
And the result could be even worse. Fifty-eight percent of those under 50 were for Remain, so it’s not just the elderly who supported Leave. And if you don’t include Scotland and Northern Ireland, the percentage of those who wanted to stay in the EU is even lower. A Pakistani just became the mayor of London. For provincial England this was quite a shock.
In my opinion the primary reason Cameron called on people to vote Remain was not to save the UK, but to save the EU. Great Britain can ultimately afford Brexit. It is an island, it has nuclear weapons and a massive economy, the whole world speaks its language. If it wants to become a second Switzerland, it can. If you remove Scotland and Northern Ireland, it even resembles Switzerland territorially. I don’t even believe that Scotland and Northern Ireland will leave. It will be better for them to stay in the UK than in the EU, which will only continue disintegrating.
George Soros believes that after Brexit the UK will face an economic crisis comparable to 2008. This will wreck Europe and further fuel populism. In ten years there might be no more EU, or it might become something resembling the UN—an institution that is just faking life.
Moreover, European stability has lost one of its two major pillars of support, because Great Britain served to balance out Germany.
Germany and France could lead Europe towards a European state that would be much stronger than the diffuse EU, which makes decisions based on the moronic principle of unanimous agreement. This is just like Poland’s ill-fated liberum veto! It will destroy the European Union just as it destroyed the Union of Lublin (Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth).
European stability has lost one of its two major pillars of support, because Great Britain served to balance out Germany.
But no one will allow for a move away from unanimity and towards integration led by Germany. There will be opposition not only from Poland and Hungary, but also from Croatia, Lithuania, and a dozen other countries. And even if by some miracle some of the countries around Germany were to see sense and establish a United States of Europe, Poland would not be among them. That is the tragedy of Poland under PiS. Who would want to wrangle with Kaczynski? You can’t even talk to him directly, you have to communicate via Duda and Szydlo.
Such a jump in integration could occur, but only after the West crashes and burns.
And how would the West crash and burn? A war?
I don’t want to play at that kind of prediction. An overlooked observation from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is his contention that only great disasters limit material inequality. Under normal circumstances, people do not share what they have. The West did not want to limit inequality, so a disaster will do the limiting.
World War II destroyed Europe, but it also limited inequality. The same was true of postwar hyperinflation. I don’t know whether there will be another war, but the signs of an oncoming crisis are everywhere. We may soon see a Europe ruled by populists, LiliPutins like Le Pen, Kaczynski, or Orban. This Europe will be irrelevant, ineffectual, overrun by terrorism and millions of refugees.
That kind of Europe could hardly be a draw for refugees.
It would be, it would be. The West is an unimaginable pile of gold. Joseph Stiglitz calculated that the Iraq war costs 2-3 trilion dollars, a sum that would feed Africa for 75 years. In terms of development and quality of life the differences between Libya or Syria and Germany or even the Czech Republic are gigantic. And Africa is a demographic bomb. We are surrounded by several hundred million hungry people. China is cynically pursuing economic expansion, but its policies are only leading to increased deprivation. China itself is facing a shortage of land and resources. Russia is seeing a resurgence of neo-Nazi discourse and practices from the 1930s. Timothy Snyder connects these facts and demonstrates how a similar set of circumstances led to the outbreak of World War II. He openly warns of the possibility of total destruction.
An overlooked observation from Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st Century is his contention that only great disasters limit material inequality.
Trump will withdraw NATO from Europe, because no Texan will want to fight for Estonia, whose existence he’s not even aware of. And what will happen in Europe? Will Putin be tempted to take some country with a large population of ethnic Russians deprived of citizenship, like Latvia? And what, will the West declare war on Russia when little green men appear in Riga? There was a poll conducted on this very question, and only the British wanted to fight. All of the Western far right supports Putin and takes money from the Kremlin. When the far right begins to win not just European elections but also domestic elections, will it stop Putin from subjugating Eastern Europe?
I don’t know what would have to happen to stop the collapse of the West. The Western left has every right to suffer from a Cassandra complex.
Why is there no chance of a regeneration of Europe through a so-called coalition of the willing, through a repeat of the European Economic Community?
The wave of populism is everywhere. Germany had been free of it up until now, but that is over. Pegida and Alternative for Germany are on the rise. Marine Le Pen will not reach a deal with the Germans. Neither will Wilders’s Holland.
How should Poland respond to this crisis?
For Kaczynski, Brexit and the fate of the EU are meaningless. He is a local, territorial politician. He does not care about the EU. I believe that we have to fight, but the Constitutional Tribunal and Ukraine are lost causes. In the face of post-Brexit convulsions, who in the EU will wait for Waszczykowski to return an opinion in two weeks?
What will PiS [Law and Justice] do when it doesn’t have enough money to fulfill its electoral promises? If paying for them would upend the budget and the economy, PiS will organize a series of show trials for PO [Civic Platform] politicians and claim that its program cannot be fulfilled because PO robbed the state blind. I am a strong proponent of social transfers, but I have no doubt that PiS’s policies in this regard are purely cynical, and so could be reversed at any time.
The biggest problem lies in the fact that PiS has no one to lose to. The opposition and the so-called political mainstream are powerless. How could Kaczynski lose to Schetyna, the leader of PO? Tusk will not return on a white horse to save everyone, despite what some people hope. After Brexit he is a man of defeat. Kaczynski can lose only to Kaczynski. Populists lose only to themselves.
As a result of the catastrophe that he is causing. The guarantor of Poland’s independence and democracy is the EU. How will Poland endure without it? PiS is as unconcerned with this question as the Communist Party was.
For Kaczynski, Brexit and the fate of the EU are meaningless. He is a local, territorial politician. He does not care about the EU.
Indeed, PiS is beginning to bear an increasing resemblance to the Polish United Workers’ Party. The same liturgical proficiency among the rank and file, the same vigilance and obedience to the party, the same drive to see who can better serve the leader. Who can complete the chairman’s sentences more loudly at the rally. Who will stand closer to him. Kaczynski doesn’t have to be prime minister. It is enough that he is the general secretary of the ruling party. The Polish United Workers’ Party is the only reality that he knows. I suspect that he saw its main fault as the fact that he was not in charge.
The media are behaving as they did in the People’s Republic of Poland. All those who serve the party are better off materially, so it is better to hide your shame and serve the government.
They are the true essence of today’s European politics. They are opportunists who have no problem with the fact that they are destroying the system and threatening Poland’s security. They are the ones who win elections, they are the ones who enjoy political vitality. This is the nature of politics in nation states set against each other by globalization.
Kaczynski is taking part in the destruction of Europe. In Poland he is dismantling liberalism, but not democracy, at least as long as it favors him. He will organize referendums, because they are a means of escaping from liberal democracy to populist democracy. Plebiscites are the dictator’s instrument of choice.
But one dictator, Augusto Pinochet, organized a referendum in 1988 in order to prolong his rule, and he lost. And he gave up power. He ran alone and came in second, as people later joked.
In Poland the Communists also lost the election in 1989, although they believed that they would win. That was not really an election, but rather a referendum. But at that point the world was experiencing a wave of democratization, just as today we are watching the tide go out. It’s a shame that it lasted such a short time.
Why is Poland producing such weak antibodies against the pressures of nationalism? Zandberg and the Razem party, as well as left-wing columnists like Sroczynski, Wos, Spiewak, and Danielewski are accusing the elites of the Third Republic of betraying the people, but there is no resurgence of the left.
After Brexit, Rupert Murdoch, that global capitalist, had his tabloid newspaper The Sun run a headline proclaiming: “Rag of the Working Class!” This is the same thing that the left is saying. Today the working class is with Murdoch, not with the left. I don’t believe it can be won over anytime soon. Our diagnoses are accurate, but they’ve come too late. Holding mainstream politicians accountable after the period of economic transformation is just knocking them while they’re down. Today we have to combat nationalism, rather than occupying ourselves with explaining Brexit or the success of PiS as the result of the destruction of the welfare state, because that’s something that everyone knows. And Murdoch is making money off of all of this.
Razem should work with KOD [Committee for the Defence of Democracy]. Today, “the people” means the middle class, and we have to protect it. We have to unite, and not divide. The enemy is elsewhere. Writing a program for the people is not the same as going with the people. The pauperized people will vote for Brexit or for PiS. Before we can convince the people that they are being deceived by Kaczynski, we have to defeat Kaczynski. And that will have to be a joint effort by everyone who wants to fight him.
How’s that? Razem is after all engaged in the Makoszowy mine, they’re leading the miners.
In order to speak to the people today, you have to stand on the KOD platform and deliver a better speech than Ryszard Petru, the leader of the neoliberal party Nowoczesna. And you can’t feel disgusted. Whoever wants to speak to the people can’t feel disgust.
Above all I’m worried that it will be difficult to win over the working class in the political landscape of a nation state closed in on itself. The global market makes that impossible in any country. As punishment, the working class will elect populists. The only solution is—or was—the EU. It was the only means of rebuilding the welfare state. But the working class has blocked just that. The choice was as follows: either the EU would take care of inequalities, or some kind of disaster would. The EU couldn’t take care of things, so now it’s time for disaster.
But populism will not assuage the anger of the working class, especially when it comes to giving people back the sense of security that they’ve lost.
I agree 100 percent. That’s why I believe that all of this won’t end well. We have to fight, but I don’t have great hopes.
This interview was originally published in Gazeta Wyborcza.
Maciej Stasiński is a journalist with the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza.
Translated by Maria Blackwood.