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Artillery Row

Let Poland be Poland

Westerners are treating the country as a blank ideological canvas

The likely election of a liberal-left coalition in Poland has delighted and appalled Westerners. For some, the end of the national conservative Law and Justice government represents a monumental step out of Poland’s political Dark Ages. For others, the return of Polish and EU liberal icon Donald Tusk represents an almost incomprehensible calamity.

As a migrant in Poland, it is not my business to have an opinion on what would be a good and bad government. That I have right-wing preferences is hardly a secret — a zebra cannot claim to be agnostic on whether he is striped or spotted — but the point is that my preferences carry minimal weight. I’m a guest, not a citizen, and will respect whoever happens to be in government.

But some foreign misconceptions do deserve a little pushback. On the right, some commentators have upheld a fantasy of a “based” Poland which serves as a kind of utopian image of what their own nation could be like — pristinely Catholic and homogeneous.

For sure, Poland is a wonderful place. Some of it feels pretty damn utopic to me. But when populist pundits claim that Law and Justice “stopped immigration”, for example, they get things backwards. Immigration soared during their time in government. Now, granted, there’s immigration and there’s immigration, and the consequences can be very different. The rise was in large part because of the Russo-Ukraine War, and the arrival of Ukrainian women and kids can hardly be compared to Western immigratory trends. But there have also been a lot of Belarusians, Georgians and workers from such varied places as the Philippines and Bangladesh

Whether that is good or bad can be debated. That it has taken place cannot. Indeed, Donald Tusk himself accused Law and Justice of allowing excessive immigration from Islamic countries during his campaign. Whether this was a sincere accusation is dubious — but it was an accusation open to being made.

This right-wing romanticisation of the country has existed in a kind of symbiotic relationship with liberal-left demonisation of the government. Both camps mistakenly believed it was “far right” — just drawing different conclusions. Timothy Garton-Ash, writing for the Guardian, celebrates the apparent downfall of “xenophobic, nationalist populists who have been dragging their country backwards”, and the chance to “turn Poland towards a modern European future”.

Again, “xenophobic”? I appreciate that Mr Garton-Ash, who has been writing about the country since years before I was born, is very knowledgeable about Poland but that is sheer silliness. As for “backwards”, well, I should tread carefully here. If a Polish voter thinks that, say, abortion rights and formal same-sex partnerships — both opposed by Law and Justice — are essential features of a modern state then I am not disputing their aspirations for their country. “Backwards” is a value judgement and, again, as long as I’m a guest in their country, their value judgements will count for more than mine. 

the Garton-Ashes of this world are in danger of conflating pro-EU amenability with economic and geopolitical significance

But I think there is a deep undercurrent of managerial hubris in pro-EU politicians’ and commentators’ cries that Poland is “back”. Poland has, in recent years, dramatically expanded its GDP, its armed forces and its economic and technological innovation. Don’t get me wrong — I’m not for a moment claiming that the government can take all of the credit for that. There is at least some extent to which any nation experiencing economic success does so in spite and not because of its government. But I think the Garton-Ashes of this world are in danger of conflating pro-EU amenability with economic and geopolitical significance. This has rarely been more preposterous, with headlines such as “EU leaders to meet as bloc struggles for united message on Israel-Hamas war” only arousing chuckles at the thought that Benjamin Netanyahu is building his plans around the opinions of Ursula von der Leyen. (The idea that pro-EU states represent some kind of blessed “normality”, meanwhile, arouses something more like nausea on the day where Brussels streets were emptied by a murderous gunman who had been living illegally in Belgium for years.)

Certainly, it is correct that a lot of Polish opponents of Law and Justice were alarmed by what they saw as grave democratic backsliding, such as with the partisanship of public media. But a lot of other grievances were the sort of grievances you would expect to find being levelled at any government which had been in office for two terms — about prices being too high and salaries being too low, and the perception that the government was taking too much and doing too little. The biggest recipient of votes that used to go to PiS was not even Tusk but his centre-right probable coalition party the Third Way.

Let Poland be Poland — free from the deluded expectations of supposed friends of all different stripes. Granted, I’m sure that there’s a Gell-Mann Amnesia effect going on here, in which I’m sensitive to this when it relates the country that I live in yet not to other countries. But that’s a me problem.

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