Poles Voice Fears of ‘Polexit’ as Government Defies EU

WARSAW, Poland (AP) -
The flags of the European Union, Poland and the city of Warsaw hang in Warsaw, Poland, on Wednesday Dec. 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

As the Polish government plays a game of chicken with the European Union over its next long-term budget, some Poles are voicing fears that a drawn-out conflict could put their country on a path toward an eventual departure from the bloc, or “Polexit.”

Poland’s conservative government, led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party, denies that it has ever wanted to leave the 27-member bloc, and popular support for EU membership runs extremely high.

But critics fear the combative tone of Polish leaders — who have recently compared the EU to the Soviet Union and used terms like “political enslavement” to describe Poland’s predicament in the standoff — could create momentum, which if unstopped, could accidently bring the nation to the exit door.

The fears are rooted in a threat by the Polish and Hungarian governments to block the EU’s 1.82 trillion-euro ($2.21 trillion) budget for the next seven years, including a coronavirus recovery package. The veto threat comes after other EU members voted to introduce a new rule that would allow the bloc to cut funding to EU nations that violate the rule of law.

Both countries, under their nationalist right-wing governments, have eroded judicial and media independence, creating concerns about democratic backsliding.

That issue will be debated at a summit of EU leaders on Thursday and Friday.

But both Poland and Hungary are so dependent on EU funding — and their populations so favorable toward the freedom it gives their workers to cross borders — that it seems unlikely they would ever truly take the self-defeating step of leaving.

Still, Polish critics have been urging the government to chose a more conciliatory path, arguing that if Poland ever finds itself outside the EU, its difficult geographic position in central Europe would leave it vulnerable like Ukraine and Belarus, exposed to the Kremlin’s considerable influence.

“Due to its position, Poland cannot be neutral,” Senate Speaker Tomasz Grodzki of the opposition Civic Platform party said in a nationally broadcast address on Nov. 27 in which he appealed to the government to drop its tough position. “Either it is in the family of Western civilization or among the authoritarian dictatorships of the East.”

As the governments in Poland and Hungary dig into their stance, other EU countries have begun considering options that would allow the bloc’s 25 other nations to launch the coronavirus recovery plan without them.

Warsaw stands to lose billions of euros if it is bypassed in the coronavirus recovery fund. Also at risk are study abroad plans by Polish students for the next academic year as part of the popular Erasmus exchange program.

Poland’s three living former presidents, noting their own long efforts to build a democratic nation, asked the government in a joint appeal this week “to stop blackmailing other European Union countries.”

“This is harmful to Poland and its place in a united Europe,” Lech Walesa, Aleksander Kwasniewski and Bronislaw Komorowski wrote.