When American tourists return to Europe (whenever the European Union authorities decide that Americans will not bring with them the virus that is devastating the United States), they will find some surprises, including lower prices owing to the incentives offered by tourist-starved countries such as Italy. Another possible surprise: there may be one less democratic nation: Poland. Since winning power in 2015, the Law and Justice Party has gradually moved Poland away from the web of relationships that make up the European community, having almost abolished the independence of its judiciary. The LJP also appropriated public television broadcasting that became a campaign tool for the incumbent President Andrzey Duda, running on slogans charged with xenophobic and anti-Semitic overtones. Duda did not win the majority in the election that was held on June 28 (he got 44%) and was forced into a second round of voting against his opponent, Warsaw mayor Rafal Trzaslowski, who got 30%. The second round is scheduled for July 12. Trzaslowski is a liberal who belongs to the opposition party Civic Platform and a strong advocate for Poland’s remaining an active member of the European Union.
The struggle to maintain Poland in the European fold is of increasing importance at a time when European nations are facing the rise of right-wing populist leaders who have been eroding the pillars of democratic solidarity and social partnership of the Union. Poland has become increasingly isolated internationally under the ruling party. There are several anomalies about Poland that Americans – especially those of Polish descent – should bear in mind: first, the European Union allocated more than $18 billion to Poland for development funds in 2018. This sum works out to 3.4% of the Polish economy. This explains why Poland has no intention of leaving the Union, even if the Union’s member states consider it a pariah in their midst. If anything, the unpleasant truth is that the European authorities have not sanctioned the Polish government and are waiting for some kind of a miracle that will be hard to achieve.
The other paradox is the insistence of President Duda to play up his close ties with the United States. He has found an erstwhile sidekick in President Trump, who even praised him as “an exemplary ally.” Eager to get Trump’s blessing, Duda offered to create a “Fort Trump” in Poland, pressuring Washington to deploy in Poland 10,000 troops that are to be withdrawn from Germany. Under a previous agreement, 1,000 U.S. troops will go to Poland, but as yet there is no firm word about any further deployment. What is apparent is that President Trump is willing to pay tribute to an undemocratic leader – on the same level of his close relationship with Turkish President Erdogan and his sympathies with Russian President Putin – and to spite German Chancellor Merkel over Germany’s alleged failure to meet NATO’s spending goals.
His antipathy against Angela Merkel is on par with that for Barack Obama. But there is even more that mystifies about Trump’s support for Duda, namely the decision to host him quickly at the White House. It is inconceivable that the head of a government would call in a foreign leader just before an election in his country, with the obvious intent of helping him get reelected. Duda personifies the lack of respect of a country for democratic processes and American values. He suffocates the media, cripples the courts and propagates hatred for LGBTQ. For a long time Poland has tried hard to maintain a special relationship with the United States – which by itself is understandable – but it is disconcerting that it is now the only country in Europe where Trump is a popular statesman. What is lamentable is that the president of the United States has gone as far as extolling his “friend” Duda and asserting that he “will be very successful” in the election. Finally, the de facto endorsement of a foreign autocrat is also a slap in the face to the European allies, who are rooting for the desperately disadvantaged opposition leader who is denied the support of the government-controlled media. On the other hand, the Europeans are not blameless in the Polish failure as they were slow and impotent in the face of rapid reverses of Polish democracy.
When Duda is reelected, save for a miracle, Poland will amount to a “fifth column” in the body politic of a united Europe, without any influence in the bloc and cut off from the Union’s foreign and security policies. Its president though will be part of Donald Trump’s “friendship club” with Poland’s constant enemy Putin. One can only hope that the tune will change in America, for the sake of Poland as well.