“The government is controlling the narrative about all political and social issues.” EU activist Maia Mazurkiewicz talks about the rise of the populist government in her native Poland and why she thinks that the European Union should impose sanctions against Poland.
What is the current political situation in Poland?
It’s difficult. We are one of the first countries in the European Union that has a populist nationalist government. The government is controlling the narrative about all political and social issues. And the opposition, both the parliamentary and the non-parliamentary opposition, only responds to what the government is saying. I believe that we need to change the way the opposition is communicating. For example, we at the European Front, which is a coalition of pro-European NGOs and organizations, try to change the narrative about the European Union.
In what way?
We want to show that the European Union is a positive story. The government is only talking about problems, but polls show that 83 percent of the Poles are still thinking that the European Union is important for us. Most Poles feel European and they believe that Poland should be in the European Union, but they don’t really understand what the European Union is. We want to listen to them and talk to them about European issues and explain the European Union to them.
"Populists try to show that the national issues are more important than the international or European ones."
What is the negative narrative that the government is telling about the European Union?
I think it is the same as with populist parties and organizations elsewhere. They try to show that the national issues are more important than the international or European ones, kind of like “America first.” Here is one example: Even though most of the population is in favor of staying in the European Union, when you ask them, “What would you do if the European Union forced you to take in the refugees?,” sixty percent of the Poles suddenly say that they would leave the EU.
That means that the government tries to pit Polish against European interests?
They do. It’s a very old narrative as well; for historical reasons, we’re kind of afraid of Germany and Russia. So the government is trying to show that other nations within the European Union are not eager to help us, because they put their own interests first. What happened in Poland – and we think it may be a big lesson for other European countries as well – is that for years when Law and Justice, the populist party, was in the opposition, they were building their own interest groups. They were talking to the citizens in grassroots organizations, they organized discussion clubs, and they established their own media. They were anti-European, but their approach wasn’t built on anti-European sentiment itself, it operated under the banner of “true patriotism.” Nobody really thought that it could change things. But it did. And at the same time the democratic and pro-European organizations didn’t do much to educate society.
Maia Mazurkiewicz is a pro-European and women’s rights activist. She is co-founder and CEO of the Art of Dialogue Foundation, which aims to empower excluded communities and movements fighting for democratization. She also co-founded We Are Europe, a pro-European organization emerging from the civic movement that organized the March for Europe in Poland and other countries.
So the populist party was able to take over the narrative?
Exactly. That’s why we have to educate our society on European issues. For example, we have a problem right now with Polish youth moving in the pro-nationalist and pro-Law and Justice direction. So we want to show them that the European Union is important, because without it, they wouldn’t be able to work or study in other countries as easily. But at the same time we want to understand: What are their fears? Because populism and nationalism are playing to their emotions.
Did the EU make the mistake of not promoting its work enough or did it not care enough about Poland?
I think that we as European Union, as pro-European movements and organizations, we didn’t see what was coming, not only in Poland but globally. For several years there has been a need for change. But we didn’t deal with this issue, so it became a niche for the populists.
So you are saying that they could take the need for change and use it for their political goals?
Exactly. And basically the main message before the elections was: change for Poland. And that’s why people were so eager to vote for it. And it’s still happening right now. The populists are very good at communication. Everything that is being done outside Poland by, for example, the Polish opposition outside the country, they communicate as a negative message. Whatever the European Union is doing – for example, thinking about triggering Article 7 –, the communication of the government is: The opposition is fighting against the nation. Which is not true. The European Union should be aware of that. It’s important to condemn the actions of the government in Poland by putting sanctions on the table and thinking about actions, but the communication needs to be handled properly.
Munich European Forum
As a participant of the BMW European Table, Maia Mazurkiewicz will also join the Munich European Forum on October 25-26, 2018. Entitled "Building a Strong Europe for Citizens", the Forum concludes and puts into a larger perspective the results and ideas of the first cycle of a dialogue process conducted over the last 18 months: Three BMW Foundation European Tables dealt with key issues related to Europe’s economy, security, and identity. Through the Munich European Forum, the BMW Foundation is taking a clear stance for the principles and goals of a united Europe.
At the European Table in Como, we discussed that there should be a link between the EU budget for Poland and Poland’s compliance with rule of law. What do you think about that?
It’s a really good idea. And not only for Poland. It should be the case for any country that is going to cross red lines. But as I said, it needs to be properly communicated. It should be shown that if the government is going to act according to European values and the letter of the law, it will get the funding. But whenever the government goes to fight with the EU or crosses red lines in terms of democracy or the judicial system or a free press, the funding is going to be postponed.
Is the situation in Poland better than in Hungary?
Fortunately Kaczynski and his party didn’t go as far as Orban and Fidesz. I think it’s also because of the civil society in Poland. There are established civic movements and people fighting against the actions taken by the government. On the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome we organized a March for Europe – in Poland we called it “I love Europe” – and there were 10,000 people on the streets of Warsaw.
Would you approve of sanctions against Poland if the government doesn’t abide by the rule of law?
I think it is definitely tough for me as a Pole. I’ve never envisioned that. I come from the generation that never really knew communism, I was raised in a free Poland and always thought that there’s going to be only positive progress. I have also envisioned myself and my country as a true European one. So it’s very hard for me to say that, but when the government will go even farther in the direction of Hungary or will break the rule of law and the laws of democracy even more – I think there should be sanctions. But again, this always needs to be explained and handled very well.