Europe's only fan?

Poland's election result is a relief for Europe. But don't get complacent
October 19, 2011
Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who won Poland's October elections, is the country's first leader to be re-elected since the end of communism

Although you can’t see me, I’m in the photos published on the morning after the recent Polish election. In most, Donald Tusk, the prime minister, is in the front row, grinning widely. Just behind him, clapping, stands Radek Sikorski, the foreign minister—and my husband. In a few, there is a lock of brunette hair visible beside him. That’s me.

Because of my husband’s job, I always have an insider’s view of Polish politics. But on election night, 9th October, I literally had the perfect view: I could see over the prime minister’s head and into the crowd below, just as Polish television published its exit polls. Civic Platform, the centre-right ruling party, won 39 per cent of the vote; its agrarian coalition partner took 8 per cent. Law and Justice, the populist opposition, got 30 per cent. The crowd went wild—and not just for joy. They were also very surprised.

In truth, nobody thought the coalition would win by such a wide margin. Since 1989, no government had ever been re-elected at all: Poles have a habit of tossing out their leaders. “The real numbers will be narrower,” people were telling each other at the victory party. But they were wrong.

By any objective criteria, the outcome of the vote ought not to have been in doubt. Tusk has been prime minister for four years. During that time, Poland was the only country in Europe not to have a recession. It did not join the euro, and so does not have to bail out Greece. It did not launch a spending spree after the financial crisis, and so is not about to default. At the same time, Poland became the biggest beneficiary of EU largesse: new roads, railways, parks, museums and even utilities built with EU money. Last summer, I drove to Gdansk on a motorway so new it didn’t yet show up on my GPS.

Poland’s sense of its own place in Europe has also changed. Nowadays one often hears Poles describe their country as northern, not eastern European: they identify with northern sobriety and austerity, not southern profligacy or eastern backwardness. Poland’s closest diplomatic links are with Sweden, its biggest trading partner is Germany. During their EU presidency, the Poles aimed, above all, to demonstrate their efficiency, their competence—and their dedication to Europe’s success.

Indeed, Poland might just be the most pro-European country in all of Europe right now. Joining the EU has meant trade, mobility, integration and, more subtly, the end of the feeling that Poles were “second-class” Europeans. Everyone I know, from cleaning ladies to university professors, has children who want to work or study abroad. Twenty years ago, many of those people had never left the country themselves.

And yet—even after 22 years of democracy and seven years in the EU, Poland’s turbulent history still casts a long shadow. To those who have not benefited from rapid economic growth, especially those in small towns where unemployment remains high, the open borders and EU links do not look like progress, and the spectre of foreign domination, whether by Germans in uniform or in business suits, remains real. The Smolensk plane crash that killed President Lech Kaczynski and his entourage last year helped raise xenophobia to levels not seen since 1989. Although the causes of the crash are known—pilot error, undue haste, heavy fog and primitive air traffic control—there are some who still believe in a conspiracy. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the opposition and the late president’s twin brother, is among them. During the election campaign, he cast aspersions on Angela Merkel—the most Polonophile German chancellor in history—hinting darkly at her “imperialist” intentions. Words like “traitor” have been thrown at politicians who want to maintain normal diplomatic relations with Russia.

The powerful emotions provoked by the crash could still overwhelm the country, if it faced another crisis. The drive to integrate with wealthy, democratic western Europe has motivated Polish foreign and domestic policy since 1989. But if western Europe ceases to be wealthy—or seems less democratic—some may well question the achievements of the past two decades, and try to unravel them. Thirty per cent of voters still support Kaczynski: a man who once declared that Poland is “really” run by Germany and Russia.

Europeans should be relieved by Tusk’s victory, if only because he is unlikely to pile a new set of demands on Europe at a time when, frankly, it has enough to cope with. But Tusk cannot rest on his laurels. The pace of modernisation must increase, and more people must benefit, if a government focused on the future, not the past, is to remain in power. And yes, I’ll tell the foreign minister that when I next see him.