European Union, Long reads, Poland

Sutowski: No salvation outside the EU

In his piece on the ill fate of Europe, which has been attracting a cow-eyed stare from Polish progressive circles for over two decades, Jakub Majmurek writes: “Something has cracked, something is broken. Imposed on Athens, this agreement is disastrous in every sense of the word, which is why we should rethink our stance on Europe as we know it. Thoughtless EU enthusiasm can no longer by default be part of every progressive political programme.” The reason is simple. Because “the EU we entered is different from the EU we have seen during Grexit negotiations. We want a different Europe.” The European Union was supposed to be a promise, as it were, of peace and prosperity, a place that sets standards for fundamental human rights, including welfare. A community that gives a chance for the underprivileged to develop, to bridge the economic gap and improve living standards in regions such as Attica, Bukovina, Subcarpathia or Košice. We can now easily see that the promise to Greece has been brutally broken.”

It is difficult not to agree with this diagnosis of European problems (institutionalised neoliberal rule, shortage of democracy and a too powerful Germany). It is true that “in exchange for the appeasement of the financial sector, the Eurozone now has its hands tied when it comes to using deficit for future growth”. It is true that “what we are dealing with in Europe these days is elusive transnational power and tangible national responsibility”. Finally, it is also true that “Germany is in fact lame as a hegemonic leader”, while “German elites (but not only) have shown base political petty-mindedness in their dealing with Greece.” The number of authors quoted by Majmurek runs into a litany that ranges for Stiglitz to Habermas. However, I would still be tempted to add several names to the list, including Wolfgang Streeck and his students from the Max Plank Institute in Cologne, Germany. These researchers can “call a spade a spade” while combining Neo-Marxist diagnosis with Post-Keynesian solutions. The EU has taken an increasingly non-dialectic path towards a technocratic economic community in which macroeconomic decisions concerning inflation, deficit, public debt as well as monetary policy and taxes are beyond democratic scrutiny and control. All this is happening in the name of the objective and rational “healthy public finance system” and the attempts to placate financial markets. All democracy is left with are culture wars and football games, since no economic matters will be left for citizens to discuss.

 All democracy is left with are culture wars and football games, since no economic matters will be left for citizens to discuss.

It is hard not to think that the vision of the EU’s evolution presented in the celebrated Gekaufte Zeit (2012, German edition) has all the hallmarks of a prophecy, especially since the German Minister of Finance has recently put forward a proposal to remove market competition from the European Commission’s jurisdiction, the latter being too politicised an institution in his view. Read: prone to the instigations of political demagogues and Keynesian squanderers of public money.

For Streeck, the EU is very much akin to the great Italian divide between the centre and periphery in which the subjugation of weaker regions to their stronger counterparts has been perpetuated for centuries. But the researcher is worth a mention for several other reasons. This is not only due to his breath-taking analysis which corroborates Majmurek’s major arguments, but also because of his dazzling fatalism. The very thought about the inevitable decline of democracy in a united Europe encourages German citizens to conclude that partial disintegration is necessary, which entails abandoning the common currency and fortifying national economies (especially national welfare states) with regulatory instruments designed by Keynes prior to the Bretton Woods Conference.

What is Majmurek suggesting to the Left? He is not actually suggesting anything, he is only offering some questions. And he requires that the Left should be challenged with more. Is “a different Europe” possible these days? That is, “more integrated, democratic, with larger wealth transfers between the regions, with mechanisms to support common labour policy, and with anticyclic and fiscal policies that would apply at least to the Eurozone”? It is conceivable that in fact “there is no question that would be more vital for Polish politics, not only for the Left”. That being said, do we really have to be “prepared for a scenario where the only answer is no”?

A growing number of journalists suggest leaving the EU, which some people may treat as a logical consequence of discarding the progressive dream of Europe. Majmurek quotes Owen Jones and James Galbraith; besides Streeck, I would also add Dutch politician René Cuperus and Polish-Austrian economist Leon Podkaminer, who see no other salvation (for social democracy) but the national state. Thus, a question arises if the Left in Poland can really afford the luxury to indulge in such scenarios. Is Polish state politics capable of going beyond the anachronistic divide between EU enthusiasts and EU sceptics (“the Schuman Parade” versus “the Treaty of Nice or death”)?[1] And most of all, what if the answer to the first two questions is no?

Majmurek explains that “we [contrary to the UK – author’s note] are not able to cope without the EU. The most probable scenario for Poland outside a united Europe is to continue on its drift to peripheries.” Exactly so. One can discuss whether Poland in the EU has risen in the global division of labour; whether motorways (necessary!) and water parks (not always necessary) are our ultimate dream; or whether supplying spare parts to German industry is the highest we can get on the global food chain.

I have no doubts, however, that without wealth transfers and migration opportunities to the UK our “production gap” (together with unemployment, negative pressure on remuneration and working conditions) would be roughly the same as in 2004 (or even worse, considering that there was no large crisis at the time).

I have no doubt that even though we could do better at managing European subsidies for technology and innovation, our smug periphery would be in no position to develop solar power solutions, wind turbine manufacturing, or fast trains without the EU. All we would be capable of are opencast lignite mines, assembly plants, more discount stores and even more Amazon warehouses (without Amazon’s book store in Poland, that is). Without the leverage provided by European subsidies, gender mainstreaming, legal regulations and a “naming and shaming” atmosphere, all Polish minority rights movements (ethnic, religious, sexual) would be in the same place as contemporary Roma rights defenders in Eastern Europe. Last but not least, without being firmly rooted in the EU, its geopolitical decrepitude notwithstanding, the recent turn in Russian politics (from a deposit-based geoeconomy to “tough” military geopolitics) would soon turn Poland into an American aircraft carrier (read: Trojan donkey) on the continent.

[quote align=’left’]Without the leverage provided by European subsidies, gender mainstreaming, legal regulations and a “naming and shaming” atmosphere, all Polish minority rights movements (ethnic, religious, sexual) would be in the same place as contemporary Roma rights defenders in Eastern Europe.[/quote]There is no need to add that like any other “TINA” solution (if we were outside of the EU), an alliance of this kind would hardly bring any benefits, and financial humiliation would be compensated only by symbols and heroics. There is little we can offer our neighbours as a “regional leader” outside of the EU centre: Lithuania is afraid of us, the Czech Republic prefers Germany, Slovakia strikes gas deals with Russia, Hungary makes similar gas and nuclear power deals also with Russia, and Latvia and Estonia consider themselves to be Scandinavian and steer clear of this Baltic and Slavic riff-raff.

In brief, there is no salvation but in the EU (which is not the same as the Eurozone). The accusations that the Polish Left has no alternative scenario in case disintegration sets in are very much akin to the grievances against the Polish Socialist Party prior to World War II for failing to develop an “alternative” scenario to deal with the Invasion of Poland. These accusations are actually legitimate, but not one damn person knows what this alternative should be (and why it should be better than what we have). Only powerful and well organised countries can afford such “scenarios”.

In his punchline, Majmurek says that Polish politicians are “totally unprepared” for the challenges resulting from the EU crisis. “The European divide has two extremes: ‘the Treaty of Nice or death’, on the one hand, and ‘the Schuman Parade’, on the other.” One party are brandishing their swords while the other are waving EU banners […]. There is no time for silly campaigning. Instead, we should sit and talk what to do about this. Sadly, I can see no partners on the Polish political scene to join the dialogue”.

All this sounds convincing in a country where the incumbent Prime Minister and her challenger are wrangling over whether the government has turned Poland into Greece, or whether it is the shadow cabinet that is going to do so (the latter planning to turn the colonised Poland into a proud Polish autarky). Is it so bad, really?

We should entertain no illusions: neither the present government nor their challengers will reroute Europe to the left. Speaking of climate change, the only choice we have is between black (coal) reactionaries and those who are even blacker. Speaking of immigrants and asylum seekers, the choice is between cowardly and cynical opportunism and racist xenophobia. Speaking of future fiscal pacts, there is no choice altogether, since Poland remains outside the eurozone and is intending to do so, which is why we have no impact on things that really matter. Considering the economic awareness of the incumbent Prime Minister and her challenger, this is perhaps for the best, as Poland, in a concerted effort with Slovakia and the Baltic countries, would be pushing Germany to the right on matters related to the European South. It is for the best also because (as probably the wisest Polish politician Marek Belka suggests) the Eurozone is burning. Therefore, it is a bad idea to run into the fire before it dies away (especially if you have no firefighting skills). As for the TTIP, yes, we do have something to say on the issue, but unfortunately it is not very clever. Our calculation is that the “strengthening of transatlantic relations” is our weapon against Putin, but we tend to forget that this ill-fated trade agreement can deprive nation states of any real political influence. We can only pin hopes on German public opinion, which is the only force that can persuade the opportunistic Chancellor to take a firm stand in negotiations with the US.

That being said, the incumbent government, which is now wiser with the experience of the Iraqi plight their predecessors so readily got us into, understands that we should avoid incidents with British and French oil in the background; which is why Poland offered no assistance in dismantling Libya, the very process of which was instigated by the overthrow of a rather nasty dictator. The incumbent government has also secured a larger share for Poland in EU structural funds without inflicting economic damage to the entire EU, which is probably going to be dismantled by Germany anyway, without our hand in it and for the reasons presented above. Last but not least, the Polish government has managed to convince selected European mainstream politicians that Ukraine is not some remote country in Asia (although they are yet to learn that Ukraine is in Europe). So much for good news. There is little chance for more. We now know that, regardless of parliamentary coalitions, the Polish government is unable to make the European Dream come true.

Europe as we know it cannot guarantee prosperity, happiness, peace and convergence. However, the only scenario for Poland outside of the EU is one of a smug and stupid nationalism of humbled peripheries. So how to change Europe as we know it? The pro-European Left in Poland has to shape the TTIP debate while striving for immigrant rights, campaigning for the Ukrainian cause,  raising the awareness of climate change and promoting renewable sources of energy instead of coal. This might seem too little. And little it is, but the political line of the government, be it the present cabinet or their challengers, leaves almost no room for manoeuvre.

And what impact can the Polish pro-European Left make in Europe? By attending European leftist conferences and rallies as well as trade union congresses, university seminars and mass demonstrations? By contributing to opinion-forming media? This is where things are getting really interesting.

Three areas seem crucial for the pursuit of the European Dream.

First, the Left in Poland tends to show more empathy towards Ukraine and its problems in the East; its opposition to neoliberal policies and American imperialism is less likely to immediately translate into a sentiment for “all things anti-American”, which is often the case in the West. A critical standpoint on Russian propaganda and the memory of the Muscovite Empire and its expansive policies foster a realistic ‒ contrary to the radicals from the South and the West ‒ assessment of the War in Donbass and, more broadly, “hard security” issues. The Left in Western Europe usually criticises the EU military component for defending the interests of France, Italy and the UK in their former colonies; for Poland and Baltic countries (as well as Sweden and Finland), however, the same component offers a potential to defend European values within the very borders of the EU.

Secondly, as a structural economic periphery of the EU and a country with the relatively stable public finance system and moderate public debt, Poland can play the role of an intellectual intermediary between the North and the South in moderating the macroeconomic conflict inside the Eurozone. Our better understanding of the “Southern” appetite for public investment stimulated growth is balanced by our “Northern” caution in managing public debt and anti-inflationary restraint. Based on remuneration growth and thriving industry, the matrix of Poland’s future economic development would be able to gain credibility among the opinion-forming circles both in the Protestant centre and Mediterranean peripheries.

Thirdly, the recent arrival of immigrants from Syria has met a stringent response from immigration adversaries, whose reaction is all the more exaggerated considering the real burden Poland has to face in order to accommodate the victims of both armed conflicts in the Middle East and economic and social crises in Africa. The entire Left in Poland has to face a seemingly remote reality which was hitherto known only in the South or was familiar to a handful of experts and social activists. In a sense, we have joined Mediterranean countries in dealing with the wave of migration. That being said, we are offering only a token contribution, whereas other countries in Central Europe and in the Balkans (Hungary, Serbia and, in particular, Bulgaria) are facing something far more tangible. The problems of Greece, Spain and Italy are now their problems. The same realisation is now dawning on Poland.

What has one thing got to do with the other (and another as well)? These three problems, namely Ukraine, the conflict between the EU centre and peripheries and immigration, are also three major challenges that the European Union is facing, and their joint (which is not to say consistent) resolution will determine “to be or not to be” for the project of Europe’s integration. These problems may be difficult to rank according to their importance, and yet one certainty remains: the division between “beneficiaries” and “contributors” is not parallel in each of the areas.

In other words, Finland may act as a “contributor” in the Eurozone (at least in its own opinion), but it is also a “beneficiary” in the immigration area; the country performs both roles when it comes to safety in Eastern Europe, as it contributes to the EU’s hard power with its impeccable territorial defence system and is also the first to benefit from common defence structures. In the eyes of Germany, Greece is a model “beneficiary” of the EU crisis policy, in their own eyes, they are model “contributors” (and brutally exploited at that). There is no doubt, however, that Greece is now paying a lot due to its geographic location and massive immigration figures. Lithuania’s system of defence is heavily reliant on Europe and NATO, but the country itself is a net ESM contributor, etc.

The problem of immigration and the threat from the East add to the challenges the EU is now facing, but they also furnish a unique chance for a new narrative on European solidarity.

This inconsistent distribution of gains and losses in the united Europe can be used to breed national egoism, but it can also serve as a point of departure for a great European narrative. We are all in the same boat, after all. The problem of immigration and the threat from the East add to the challenges the EU is now facing, but they also furnish a unique chance for a new narrative on European solidarity. The image of the EU in which the hard-working North is constantly providing for the prodigal South is simply wrong (and has always been, but collective imagination and media discourse claim it to be otherwise). In order to face global challenges, the EU has created a system in which “one has to carry the burden for the other”. Due to our “neutral” position in the South-North divide and our “competence” (or at least a different combination of sentiments and ressentiments than in the West) is safety and the East, the Polish Left has a unique potential for promoting the European narrative. Poland has been on the side-lines with regard to the third issue, but the arrival of the immigrants from Syria and the stringent response that followed have suddenly confronted us with this seemingly remote reality.

We as the Polish Left can offer a number of interesting insights at least in two out of the three problem areas presented above. We have to seek the European Dream, or something that would at least resemble it, by building shared narratives, organising social coalitions and changing political alliances. I do not know if we can make it, but it still remains a better scenario than simply leaving the EU or undermining the European project, as the only alternative we have if it collapses is to solicit a soft American occupation.

Translated by Bartosz Sowiński. This article was originally published on Dziennik Opinii.


[1] Translator’s comment:The latter statement by Polish conservative politician Jan Maria Rokita is now something of a EU-sceptic slogan in Poland. The statement comes from Rokita’s comment on EU treaty negotiations.


Michał Sutowski
Political scientist, columnist, editor. Coordinator of the Institute for Advanced Studies. Translator from English and German. Editor of the political writings of Jacek Kuroń and Stanisław Brzozowski. In 2012, he studied at the Yale University as part of the Political Critique scholarship.