Can rising Polish pride coexist with Poles' enthusiasm for the EU? So far, yes.

Last month, the EU triggered a never-before-used procedure to attempt to force Poland to halt politicization of its courts, putting Warsaw and Brussels on a collision course. But while Poles back their government, they also still support the EU as well.

Adam Stepien/Agencja Gazeta/Reuters
Protesters carry Polish flags and National Radical Camp flags during a rally organized by far-right nationalist groups to mark the anniversary of Polish independence in Warsaw, Nov. 11, 2017.

The store Surge Polonia, whose Latin name means “Rise Up Poland,” was established in 2011 online, selling clothes with patriotic slogans such as “Feel Pride” emblazoned onto T-shirts and sweatshirts.

But demand has grown so much that the owners have since opened physical locales in Warsaw, Lublin, Gdynia, and Wrocław, according to their website, joining dozens of other such apparel shops peddling in patriotism in recent years across the nation.

“I started to wear these clothes a few years ago to show that patriotism has its value, that we can be proud of Poland,” says Jakub Strzelczyk, while shopping in the Surge Polonia Warsaw branch inside a shopping mall that also houses such standards as Zara, Mango, and H&M.

His viewpoint provides some insight into how Poland – whose pride was once founded on leading the country away from the Soviet Empire and into the western fold – is now sitting on the front lines of a rebellion against the European Union.

Pro-Warsaw and pro-Europe

Poland is one of the biggest challenges the EU faces at the start of 2018.

Last month, the EU triggered Article 7, a never-before-used procedure to attempt to force the country to halt legislation that gives politicians more sway over the courts. Widely seen abroad as undemocratic, the legislation could technically lead Poland to lose its voting rights – and already has cost it clout – in the bloc.

The so-called “nuclear option” shows how seriously the EU takes dissent coming from Poland, the biggest and most influential of the post-Soviet member states. But the next steps are unclear if Poland does not back down from its controversial judicial reform. The EU will vote on the sanctions process, but it requires unanimity among all member states. Already Hungary has said it’s on Poland’s side.

And Poland's ruling party, Law & Justice (PiS), remains as popular as ever. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who is due to announce a cabinet reshuffle by tomorrow, heads to Brussels Tuesday to meet with the EU Commission to discuss next steps.

“Quel paradoxe!” opined Le Monde, France’s newspaper of record, about the triggering of Article 7 on Dec. 20, when contrasted with Poland's grassroots movement to bring down communism in 1989.

It’s not that Poles are clamoring to follow Britain out of the bloc; they remain enthusiasts of the EU. Even PiS politicians who criticize the EU do not advocate in favor of leaving it.

But surveys show a bump overall in support for the government since Brussels took the unprecedented step against it. In fact, despite Poland and the EU being at loggerheads throughout 2017, 65 percent of Poles in a poll by CBOS published Jan. 4 said the last year was a good one, the best result since 1989.

Conservative Poland

The popularity of the party, which has divided Poland, owes to many factors, including Poland’s strong economic performance, child benefits that PiS has enacted, and the party’s hard stance on refugees and Russia. But it’s also benefited from a new kind of nationalism brewing, where the EU is painted as an enemy class of liberal elites who are out of step with regular Poles.

Maciej Gdula, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw who authored a report about small-town support for PiS in November, says that for most of Poland's transformation from Soviet rule, small-town Poles were made to feel “bad” for not being big-city elites. PiS has thus come into power restoring their sense of self, Professor Gdula says, "that people from small towns and villages can feel proud of who they are."

It is one reason its isolation as a rebellious EU member state has not crossed a “red line” for supporters, he says.

According to recent Eurobarometer polling, Poles hold more positive views of the EU than the EU average. But they also feel distinct from it. The Stefan Batory Foundation, which receives funding from George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, recently carried out a survey on Polish identity. As the most homogeneous society in Europe, 70 percent said that being a Catholic was an important factor for being considered a "real Pole.” In Roman Catholic Spain, just 20 percent said the same.

“Polish society stands out from other EU countries when it comes to conservatism in social matters, which enhances the feeling of being different from the rest of Europeans,” the report notes.

‘Not financed by the European Union’

Bashing the EU remains popular among ruling politicians and patriotic merchandisers. Among the mottoes of one patriotic apparel company, Red is Bad: “This product has not been financed by the European Union.”

Indeed, Polish patriotism has kicked into full gear this year as Poland observes the 100th anniversary of regaining independence.

Joanna Bieniek is in her 20s and coordinates the Academy of Modern Patriotism, which runs workshops for students where they are taught economic patriotism – like buying only Polish products. According to a CBOS poll in November 2017, 46 percent of respondents said that they choose products because they were Polish, 13 percent more than a year ago.

She says when she was in high school ten years ago, there was very little emphasis put on the EU. "I don't remember that in high school an emphasis was put on European values.”

Robert Grzeszczak, a professor who specializes in the EU law at University of Warsaw, says that in the transition to democracy, many governments failed to build an ethos around the EU and its common values, instead selling it to the public as merely an economic success story from which Poland can benefit. Today, he says, “Polish Euro-enthusiasm is very superficial.”

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