Poland's new government
The trouble with Poland
From The Economist print edition
A country that thrives despite its governments
SEEN one way, Poland is a dreadful example of how central Europe is going wrong. The largest post-communist country in the European Union has remarkably high unemployment (18%), a remarkably bad system of public administration and some remarkably odd politicians.
Some of the time Poland has been governed by suave but sleazy ex-communists. At other times—including now—it is run by prickly, eccentric anti-communists. The biggest ruling party, Law and Justice, has decidedly rum notions. It loathes gays, feminists and the secular liberal order that most of Europe equates with modernity. On foreign policy, the party's sentimental attachment to America is matched by a visceral loathing of both Germany and Russia (recently the defence minister, Radek Sikorski, likened a German-Russian gas pipeline that Poland opposes to the Nazi-Soviet pact of 1939).
The government formed last weekend is even odder than the minority conservative administration of the past six months. Law and Justice has brought in two populist parties, the left-wing Self-Defence, and the right-wing League of Polish Families. In most European countries, such outfits would be on the fringes, not at the centre of power. Both parties have thuggish streaks, dodgy connections and peculiar ideas about politics and economics (until recently, Self-Defence wanted to cure unemployment by splurging the central bank's foreign-currency reserves). All this seems dismal to Poland's EU partners, who want a calm neighbour that plays by the rules. Instead they see a cranky, unpredictable country that reeks of backwardness; its cut-rate workers destabilise domestic labour markets; its bureaucrats can't implement the EU's rules; and its leaders make sensible decision-making impossible.
Yet as our survey this week argues, this picture of Poland is misleading. The main story of the past 15 years is of stunning success and modernisation. Poland's booming service industries are unrecognisable compared with the exhausted rust-belt country of 1989. Exports are soaring. Economic growth, running at 5% or so, puts old Europe to shame. Even the emigration of a million-odd Poles has its upside. It is better to wash dishes in London than to be jobless at home. Many Poles abroad are learning new skills, languages and attitudes that will stand them in good stead when they return, as most do. Freedom of movement inside the EU means that, unlike previous generations, most Poles are not emigrating for ever.
Nor is Poland's foreign policy as objectionable as some aver. Like its Baltic neighbours, Poland has reason to be suspicious of Russia, over both its aggressive energy policy and its baleful influence in Belarus and elsewhere. Poland is certainly increasingly assertive within the EU—but hardly more so than Spain, a comparably big country. The idea that new EU members from central Europe should be eternally grateful suppliants in the corridors of Brussels is patronising and unrealistic.
Even the latest coalition government may be less bad than it seems, for all the opprobrium deservedly heaped on its smaller parties. The prime minister, Kazimierz Marcinkiewicz, has confounded critics by making his minority government both effective and popular. Reforms in state administration—particularly the legal system—are proceeding apace. Armed with a parliamentary majority, his government could do still more. And it may be better to have populists of left and right tied down within the government than sniping from outside.
But this is still only a second-best outcome. Best would be a coalition that united Law and Justice with the country's other centre-right party, the more liberal-minded Civic Platform. It is baffling that two parties which share so much history and have such similar views are now at odds thanks to personality clashes. Mr Marcinkiewicz and his colleagues in Law and Justice should give their new coalition a chance. But if the populist parties start demanding more than cosmetic changes to economic or foreign policy, they should be thrown overboard without further ado. Poland has done well despite its bad governments. It could do even better with a good one.