The central question surrounding the European Parliament elections on 23–26 May is what gains Eurosceptic and populist parties will make relative to the traditional pro-European parties. Forecasts expect the former to secure around one-third of the 751 seats, compared with their current share of a little more than one-quarter. Almost every EU member state is profoundly divided over Europe, and the Polish debate has also been heavily polarised.
What is remarkable is the extent to which Polish parties entertain a genuine debate on Europe’s future and how the Polish nation should relate to European integration more broadly. Given this politicised atmosphere, turnout in Poland on 26 May is expected to surpass the meagre 24 per cent of the two previous European elections. Ahead of the Polish parliamentary election this autumn and the presidential vote in 2020, the European elections are worth watching closely to sense the political mood across the country.
Two outlooks on Europe
With Britain participating in the 2019 European Parliament elections despite the Brexit vote, the UK’s seats have not yet been redistributed to other members. Fifty-one seats are allocated to Polish MEPs, the bulk of which will go to either the ruling national-conservative party or an opposition alliance.
Law and Justice (PiS), chaired by former prime minister Jarosław Kaczyński, currently forms part of the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists—the Eurosceptic European political party that also includes the British Conservatives. The European Coalition (KE) is a newly established alliance of five opposition parties including Civic Platform, the Polish People’s Party, and .Modern. Most of its members belong to the (liberal-)conservative European People’s Party, which also includes Germany’s Christian Democratic Union and France’s Republicans. Had they run together, the KE parties would have scored 49 per cent of the vote in the 2014 European elections, when PiS received 39 per cent.
The Polish population articulates strikingly positive views on European institutions and almost universal support for Poland’s EU membership. Nevertheless, the results of the upcoming elections are likely to come down to a narrow margin. In particular, the political behaviour of young Poles has attracted attention. In the local elections in late 2018, PiS gained the highest vote share of 18- to 29-year-olds, and young Poles have increasingly turned towards conservative worldviews—though not necessarily away from democratic values. However, PiS has recently lost support especially among young and urban populations, directly benefiting the KE.
The nearly even split in the Polish population between those who express national-conservative views and those with progressive, outward-looking attitudes also crystallises over debates on Europe. The question of what Poles associate with Europe is therefore particularly salient, as it is often connected with deeply held convictions about what Europe stands for and what it should become.
The meaning of Europe for young Poles
To understand how young Poles relate to Europe, ZOiS asked 2,000 respondents to indicate the two most important things they associate with Europe. The online survey, conducted in February 2019, includes people across Poland aged 16–34 living in cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants. Ideas about Europe are unlikely to change with the European elections and therefore offer an intriguing long-term perspective on what Europe represents for young people in today’s Poland. The survey consciously did not mention the EU, to leave that interpretation of Europe as one option for the respondents.
Among a number of meanings of Europe identified by the survey, the first is a large political bloc. This includes associations of Europe not only with the EU institutions or the euro but also with ideas that those institutions try to cultivate, such as community, equality, freedom, unity, and unification. These terms account for an important share of around 15 per cent of the statements given.
Beyond the political dimension, there are often emotionally loaded categories. These relate to large and abstract ideas of Europe understood as a civilizational project. This idea is a diverse category, capturing statements that relate to ancient cultures or to a Europe framed by young respondents as the cradle of civilization. In this vein, respondents also combine Europe with Christianity, the origin of democracy, or a rich history.
Illustrating the Polish public’s profound split, the emotionally loaded responses convey a sense of frustration with Europe. Amid a diversity of associations with Europe, respondents frequently describe Europe’s hypocrisy or immorality. This interpretation usually refers to a perceived loss of traditional values or to corruption and a sense of chaos or despair about overt political complexities.
Respondents also mention the arrival of migrants and refugees in starkly negative terms. These responses are primarily given by young men and by people who express higher trust in the Polish president. Factors such as whether respondents live in the capital and their levels of education or household income do not play a significant role. Poland’s open borders, referred to by a high number of respondents, have a negative connotation for those who are dissatisfied about the arrival of new people into the country. Other respondents, however, applaud open borders and the ability to travel freely or work abroad without restrictions.
Another realm of meaning is economic. While Europe is primarily seen positively in that regard, referring to the wealth and development that has been enabled by European integration, some respondents emphasise that poverty and inequality persist. Moreover, some respondents mainly associate Europe with the inequality between East and West or the fact that people’s opinions tend to be ignored. Respondents with this view also have the impression that decisions are being imposed on Poland from abroad.
With predictions of the election results pointing to a split between the two main contenders, the Polish population overall holds largely positive opinions on Europe. As for younger generation, a majority has positive views on average. But young Poles also express significant tensions over the idea of Europe and the relationship between Poland and Europe.