‘Poles like me look on Brexit with admiration and hope. The British may create a new opening for Europe and its peoples, in the same way as Solidarity in Poland was an opening of a new era’
Brexit is not good news for Poland. The ruling parties and the mainstream opposition agree on this for rational and indeed intuitive reasons. Brexit may hinder the substantial trade (nearly £17.5 billion in 2016) between the two countries. On the human side, there are worries about the status and rights of the roughly one million Poles living in the UK—the country’s largest group of resident foreigners. On the political front, the UK’s EU membership has balanced the traditional German-French EU “engine”.
Polish thinking about the economy, and state involvement, has generally been more aligned with the UK’s approach than with more interventionist German and French. And at a time of tension between Poland and Russia, the UK is an important ally not only in Nato but also within EU structures. Against that background it seems hardly surprising that Daniel Kawczynski, a Polish-born pro-Brexit Conservative MP, got a cool reception when he lobbied the Polish government not to delay Brexit by agreeing the latest extension.
Nonetheless, Poles like me—an academic and consultant to governments and companies, living in the UK since 1988—look on Brexit with admiration and hope. For a start, we like the idea of a country thumbing its nose at the overpaid, unaccountable political elite that rules in Brussels at the behest—many of us would say—of the EU’s German paymasters. We are also watching keenly to see how the EU treats Britain over Brexit. An organisation which makes exit difficult resembles a mafia protection racket. In a reference to the despised, inefficient and autocratic collective farms of the Soviet era, many of us now disparagingly term the EU the euro-kolkhoz. Brexit may be the first step in creating a new Europe of flexible alliances and coalitions based on common interests rather than top-down control from Brussels, Paris and Berlin.
Polish support for the EU, at a headline figure of over 90 per cent, is more complicated than it looks. It combines those (mainly in the opposition parties) who support “ever closer union” and those who would prefer the model of the old European Economic Community (EEC), of economic cooperation between sovereign countries. For euro-federalist Poles, not only is Brexit a mistake, but the way it has happened was bad too. They think that David Cameron blundered in holding the referendum in 2016 and warn against repeating this exercise in Poland. Like their Remain counterparts in the UK, they dislike democracy when the questions lead to the wrong answers.
Remainers in Britain and Poland’s euro-federalists have much in common. They seek assurance for their rights and freedoms from the EU authorities, an external superpower. Their opponents—Brexiters and the Polish governing party—prefer to rely on the democratic verdicts of their own people. This echoes Poland’s past. In the second half of the 18th century, my native country was an emerging democracy where many citizens, chiefly the large noble class, the szlachta, enjoyed substantial political privileges. Confronted by changes that could have required them to share these advantages with the wider population, they started looking for outside protection, by an external superpower: Catherine the Great and Imperial Russia. This led to loss of Poland’s independence in 1795, which despite bloody uprisings was not to be regained for the next 123 years.
The experience of foreign rule means that Poles cherish their freedoms. During the 45 years of communist rule before 1989, Poles aspired to join the West, meaning the association of free and independent nations. Instead of the planned economy, they yearned for the free movement of goods, money and people. They did not expect to end up in a supranational project where European laws take precedence over national parliaments, where national identity was regarded as an anachronism worthy only of dilution, and where Antonio Gramsci’s cultural Marxism, and its offshoots of political correctness, have become a new ideology.
So it is not paradoxical that Polish eurosceptics sympathise with Brexit, while not wishing our country to follow a similar path. We want to resist federalism from inside, whilst having the UK as an ally outside. Britain’s departure will shake up the stagnant and introverted EU, and the whole of Europe.
No doubt, Brexit will be a shock. Very often shocks result in new thinking and new solutions to old problems. British diplomacy will not be idle. The UK’s presence outside the EU changes the picture. It may well be a start of a new alliance between the non-eurozone countries of the UK, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. These countries are much more pragmatic, less protectionist and far less federalist in their thinking towards the rest of Europe than Germany or France. Far from strengthening Germany’s role in Europe, Brexit will weaken it, by creating competition to the German-run EU. Poland, which has no desire to join the fatally flawed common currency, will be an enthusiastic ally, and eventually even a member of this group, which will be the kernel of a broader European alliance based on the pre-Maastricht principles of the EEC. Pragmatic countries such as Finland and the Netherlands will be tempted too: which is better, to join a pragmatic, business-oriented collection of well-run countries, or languishing in a failing, bossily-run collective farm, with Greece, Italy and other laggards?
It’s also about hope. If Germany takes Brexit seriously on board, perhaps unwittingly driven by values and zest for true democracy and freedom, the British will create a new opening for Europe and its peoples, in the same way as Solidarity in Poland, back in 1980, led to the opening of a new era of European prosperity when the Berlin wall collapsed nine years later. Brussels’s bureaucratic walls supported by Germany must collapse too. Or at least they need a serious revamp. The Brexit shock may, hopefully, spark such change.