There is a perplexing contrast between Polish society’s support for European integration and the anti-European right-wing populism characteristic of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS). While Poland finds itself in numerous conflicts with EU institutions, including over the rule of law, the pushbacks against refugees at the border with Belarus and the funding that the EU withheld over the LGBT-free status of roughly 100 municipalities, the country is also crucial in Europe’s collective response to the Russian war in Ukraine.
To explore how young Poles relate to the EU, ZOiS conducted an original online survey in March 2022 among 2,000 young people from across the country. The survey confirms a generally positive attitude towards the EU but indicates that EU support is conditional upon how respondents understand Europe. Respondents are supportive of EU integration on a rather abstract level, as long as it does not interfere with the nation-state.
No desire for a Polexit
In spring 2022, Poles expressed some of the most favourable views on the EU compared to others within and outside of the bloc. A Pew Research Center survey revealed that approval was at an all-time high; an overwhelming 89 per cent of respondents had a positive view of the EU, even if support varied according to people’s political views, with PiS supporters being more sceptical.
The ruling party derives a political advantage by presenting the EU as threatening, particularly to Poland’s socio-cultural model, and positioning itself as its guardian. Such discursive manoeuvres, which include a prioritising of NATO rather than European defence policy, should not be confused with an actual desire to exit the EU, even if PiS expresses no wish to join the eurozone. When we asked young Poles how they would vote in a hypothetical referendum on EU membership, a clear picture emerged. Overwhelmingly, young people across all walks of life state that they would vote to stay in the EU.
Around 10 per cent of the young would vote to leave the EU, a figure that is well below the national average of around 17 per cent in August 2021. Women and religious respondents are more likely to vote leave, and while financial status has no statistically significant effect, the worse-off would vote leave in the hypothetical scenario. Opposition to the EU is particularly strong among respondents living in the country’s eastern voivodships, whereas supporters of Rafał Trzaskowski – Warsaw mayor and presidential candidate in the 2020 race – and Szymon Hołownia – journalist and contender in the 2020 presidential race – are significantly more supportive of EU membership.
EU support depends on what respondents are reminded about
While the above findings suggest clarity, a closer look is rewarding. When we asked young Poles about the extent to which European integration might threaten national identity, around one in three mention that they think it does to some extent or very much. Moreover, it is known that in comparison with other European countries, the understanding of Europe is very different in Poland, where there is a focus on the region’s Christian heritage, for example.
To what extent, then, is EU support contingent on the information available to respondents about Europe? In the ZOiS survey, we split the sample into four random groups and respondents in three groups were reminded of one specific conflict between the EU and Poland. The respondents in the fourth group, the control group, were merely given a short factual statement about Poland’s EU membership. All were then asked: ‘Some say that European integration should go further, while others say it has already gone too far. What is your opinion on this subject?’
The difference in attitude depending on what respondents were told is striking. Most young people who were only reminded about Poland’s EU membership thought that European integration should go further. However, mention of any kind of conflict between the EU and Poland leads to significantly more sceptical views on further European integration.
Further analysis of the differences confirms that the context that is provided overwhelmingly accounts for the difference in support for further EU integration. Furthermore, women are particularly opposed to further EU integration if the tensions regarding the ‘LGBT-free zones’ are mentioned, as are those who voted for the incumbent president Andrzej Duda. Respondents who indicate that they are not religious are also significantly more likely to state that EU integration should go further, irrespective of the version of the question they received. Supporters of far-right politician Krzysztof Bosak also state that EU integration has gone too far, particularly if the ‘LGBT-free zones’ are mentioned.
It matters what Europe stands for
What people are told about the EU determines to a significant extent what they think about Europe. For that reason, the EU has tried for decades to bring Europe closer to its citizens; for example, beneficiaries of EU funds are required to make this clear by displaying an EU plaque at project sites, presumably to boost local support. The EU institutions also weigh in on debates over European history and identity. Whether such EU initiatives make any difference remains uncertain but it is clear that the ‘Europe’ brand differs between individual member states. Moreover, the way in which the EU institutions relate to their country clearly matters when it comes to young Poles’ support for further European integration. Based on our survey, support for European integration wavers when the EU attempts to provide an external corrective to whatever national shortcomings exist.
Dr. Felix Krawatzek is a senior researcher and head of the research cluster ‘Youth in Eastern Europe’ at ZOiS.
 Texts given to the four respondent groups along with the following question: “Some say that European integration should go further, while others say it has already gone too far. What is your opinion on this subject?”
Rule of law: The European Commission has decided to refer Poland to the European Court of Justice in connection with the 2019 Judiciary Act. The Commission is of the opinion that the Polish Judiciary Act threatens the independence of Polish judges and does not allow Polish courts to directly apply certain provisions of European Union law. Subsequently, the European Court of Justice imposed fines on Poland in the amount of one million euros a day in connection with the controversial reform of the courts.
Refugee crisis Belarus: When thousands of people were stuck in the cold on the Polish-Belarusian border, the leaders of the European Union rose above the disputes with Poland and declared their solidarity with the efforts it was making to keep migrants from entering Europe. Charles Michel, President of the European Council, said: ‘Poland is facing a major crisis. It is a crisis which we are taking seriously, and which calls for both solidarity and unity across the entire European Union.’
‘LGBT-free zones’: In July last year, the European Commission initiated proceedings against Poland in connection with the so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’ laws adopted by several Polish regions and municipalities. The Commission is concerned that these declarations may breach European law on non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. As discrimination against LGBTIQ people still exists in the member states, the European Union is trying to better protect their rights, even when tensions arise over national laws.
Control group: In May 2004, Poland joined the European Union, and to this day the vast majority of Poles support Poland's membership of the Union.