With society deeply divided over refugees, the ruling Civic Platform party is under pressure to defend ‘Polish interests’.

“They are not refugees, they are aggressors” – bawls the front page of the leading conservative weekly Do Rzeczy, calling upon the government to “close Poland’s borders”. Beata Szydło,the most likely candidate to be the new Polish prime minister after the parliamentary elections scheduled for 25 October, was quoted saying that “instead of Arabs and Negros Poland should first invite the Poles form the East [Polish emigrants to Kazakhstan and other post-Soviet republics]”.  On the other hand, the liberal media, most notably the largest daily newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, have been instrumental in pushing the public debate in another direction entirely. However, their call to support a demonstration two weeks ago in Warsaw titled “Refugees are welcome” attracted under 2,000 people. The rivalling nationalist demo was at least four times bigger.

Polish society is divided on the question of whether the country should accept more refugees or not. According to an opinion poll commissioned by Gazeta Wyborcza in August 53 percent of Poles believe that admitting refugees is a moral obligation (44 percent oppose this view) but almost 70 percent of Poles fear an increase of religious and social conflicts resulting from a possible influx of immigrants. The concerns about immigration and, more generally, encountering the “other” are deeply rooted in Poland as they are in other Central and Eastern European countries. In a striking contrast to Western Europe, this region’s experience with multiculturalism (understood not as a policy but a social reality) is very limited, maybe even non-existent. The memory of Poland between the sixteenth and eighteenth century as a multi-ethnic and multi-religious empire has waned and fails to act as a source of identity for the modern nation-state. Pre-war Poland was not an immigrant society and its multicultural character was largely to do with the large Jewish (as well as Ukrainian and German) populations which were long-established minorities in the territories that made up the Polish state at the time.

Today, immigrants constitute just 0.3 percent of the country’s population. Accordingly, integration and refugee policies have ranked on the lower end of the political agenda in the last 25 years. Poland’s uptake of around 80,000 Chechen refugees in the 90s (who either assimilated quickly or left the country soon after) has not changed the public’s perception on immigration or made it a matter of public concern. So, the refugee crisis and the pressure from European partners to accept a fair share of responsibility (Poland agreed in July to accept 2,200 refugees on a voluntary basis) found Polish society and the state wrong-footed, both mentally and politically.

The electoral campaign made things even worse, most notably for the existing government because the national-conservative opposition (Law and Justice) did not shy away from pushing the party into the corner on the refugee policy. Projecting scenarios of the ‘islamisation’ of Poland, warning against terrorist threats and criticising the expected surrender to Brussels or Berlin, the Law and Justice Party took aim at the deeply rooted concerns of Polish citizens and has left the ruling coalition little room for manoeuvre in the EU.

Nevertheless, Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz of the Civic Platform party has refrained from using the language of her Slovak, Czech or, most notably, Hungarian counterparts who have drawn, heavily at times, on anti-Muslim and xenophobic rhetoric. Kopacz’s refusal to follow the lead of others in her rhetoric might have gone unnoticed by the West, with the Polish government siding with its more demagogic Visegrad partners in order to prevent the EU from taking decisions seen as unacceptable (like an automatic relocation mechanism). In reality, however, the government made sure to tread the line between defending “Polish interests” in the domestic arena without falling into populist and anti-immigrant rhetoric.

 Under pressure from EU partners and, increasingly, parts of the Polish media, the government has at last openly made the case for Poland to take up more refugees and show more solidarity with the EU in the refugee crisis. Speaking before Parliament on 16 September, Prime Minister Kopacz took a strong anti-refugee stance, reminding society (the session was broadcast in real time by TV and radio stations) of Poland’s obligations and interests. This speech prepared the ground for the decision to support the EU’s policy on the refugee crisis and break with the Visegrad group on that issue. It came as no surprise that harsh criticism from the opposition followed and accusations of the government ruining the foundations of the Polish foreign policy (Visegrad cooperation), by bowing to Berlin’s pressure and undermining Poland’s security, made the headlines.

The refugee issue has become an important issue in domestic politics because of the electoral campaign. However, the government’s decision to follow the EU’s policy decisions on the refugee crisis has not, interestingly, weakened the ruling party’s results in the polls.  In fact some recent polls suggest that the distance to the still leading Law and Justice is diminishing.The outcome of the election is still absolutely open (it largely depends on the results of five minor parties which could tip the balance either way on a 5 percent margin).  More than anything, concerns that a more assertive position for the Kopacz government in Brussels – a national treason in the eyes of some of the public – would rubber stamp Civic Platform’s humiliating electoral defeat seem to have been exaggerated. 

Read more on: View from the Capitals, Human Rights

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.