Poland’s Road to Europe in the Eyes of Public Opinion

Tr@nsit Online

In June 2000 the Institute of Public Affairs conducted an extensive survey of Polish public opinion on a wide-ranging set of issues related to Poland’s accession process. The present article aims to give the reader an overall view of the results as well as to verify some of the claims made during the above mentioned debates and political controversies.

1. Introduction

In October 1999 the Institute of Public Affairs in Warsaw, one of Poland’s major independent think tanks, published the results of a brief survey of the Polish public’s support of European integration. Short as it was, the publication caused a storm in the media and the political world, with the reverberations reaching Brussels and other European capitals. For the first time since the pollsters started to measure support for Poland’s membership in the EU, less then fifty per cent of the public declared that they would vote ‘yes’ in an accession referendum. The headline in a major Polish daily “Rzeczpospolita” – “Eurosceptics drink champagne” – captures the emotions that this piece of research produced. In fact, in the debate that followed both Euroesceptics (or ‘Eurorealists’ as they prefer to call themselves) and Euroenthusiasts used the survey results to shore up their criticism of the accession process. For the opponents of the prospective membership, the poll results were the first sign of a forthcoming anti-European revolt of the public. More moderate critics of integration blamed ‘Euroenthusiasts’ for being too ‘soft’ in relation to the EU and of neglecting Poland’s ‘national interests in the membership negotiations, thus fostering anti-European attitudes in the general public. In turn, declared pro-Europeans (as well as major media) used the results to criticize the government for its slowness and incompetence in the management of the accession – the cases in point being the inability to appoint the Head of Office for the Committee for European Integration (the main administrative unit responsible for the preparation for membership) and more than a year of delays in the government’s information campaign on Europe. Paradoxically, this and other opinion polls seem to have strengthened the position of Polish negotiators vis-à-vis Europe, who could now claim that inflexibility of their European counterparts would lead to even greater decline of public support for integration.

In June 2000 the Institute of Public Affairs conducted an extensive survey of Polish public opinion on a wide-ranging set of issues related to Poland’s accession process. The present article aims to give the reader an overall view of the results as well as to verify some of the claims made during the above mentioned debates and political controversies. The IPA will publish the comprehensive report in autumn of 2000.

2. “How will they vote?” – support and opposition to the EU membership

Until quite recently the low level of support for EU enlargement seemed confined to the present member states. Among the Central and Eastern European candidate countries Poland enjoyed the second highest level of support after Romania with 63 per cent of those in favour and only 6 percent against. The downward trend started in 1998 and seems to have continued until now.

Table 1. Changes in the support for Poland’s integration with the European Union

If a referendum was held in Poland on Poland’s accession to the EU, would you vote: VI
In percentage
– in favour of the accession 77 72 80 72 72 72 66 63 64 55 59 55 59 55
– against the accession 6 9 7 12 11 12 19 19 19 26 26 26 25 26
– don’t know 17 19 13 16 18 15 15 18 17 19 15 19 16 19

Source: CBOS 2000

Researchers and analysts point to several reasons for this decline in support. The beginning of the negotiations seems to have changed the perspective of Poland – EU relations, focusing them on specific issues rather than (as before) on the general idea of ‘returning to Europe’. What is more, these issues were often marked by conflict, because the negotiation areas where no serious difference of interests existed were not very interesting for the media and thus the public did not hear much about them. Here as elsewhere good news was no news for the media. The commentators also pointed out what they saw as a lack of clear leadership on the part of the government and the tendency to use the European debate as an instrument of party politics. As the general amount of information on the accession process increased, more and more people realized the costs of membership. The reluctance of European Union officials to set the date for negotiations and assume part of the responsibility for the enlargement project must have also contributed to the general ‘cooling’ of Polish public opinion.

There also seems to be a group influencing the support for integration, which is only indirectly connected with Polish-EU relations. In 1999 the ruling centre-right coalition introduced an ambitious program of reforms of the public sector: healthcare, public administration, social insurance and education. The burden of the reform, imaginary and real failures in its design and implementation caused general public discontent and a rapid decrease in government ratings. The analysts have long pointed out the correlation between the attitude towards the systemic transition and the support for EU accession. Thus the declining support for the new wave of reforms had to influence the Poles’ views of the integration.

The question that the Polish researchers ask the public as a primary measure of support for integration concerns the intention to vote in the prospective referendum on EU membership. There is particular salience to this question in Poland, where the Constitution imposes very strict conditions on the validity of the referendum, which not only requires more than 50% of the ‘yes’ vote but also the attendance of more than half of the eligible voters. It seems paradoxical that the Polish EU referendum will have to meet stricter criteria than the 1997 constitutional referendum, which did not require more than 50% of adult Poles to vote in order to be valid (in fact the attendance was below 50%)! While it is true that the Constitution also provides for the ratification of the Accession Treaty by the National Assembly (by two thirds of members of Parliament and Senators), nevertheless all the major political parties have committed themselves to a referendum, which now seems inevitable. What is more, the ‘fifty percent plus one’ turnout requirement makes it possible for the referendum to be invalid rather than lost by outright rejection of the treaty. (Low voters’ turnout is endemic to Polish democracy). The conclusion for social researchers is that the declarations of the abstention from the vote are as significant (albeit in a different way) as the percentage of ‘no’ voters.

In the IPA survey of June 2000 two referendum questions were asked. The first was to measure the intention to participate, while the second question gauged the proportion of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ voters. A strong majority of the respondents declared their intention to vote as opposed to less than one third of non-participants. However, if we compare the number of those who say ‘decisively yes’ (39%) with those who say ‘rather yes’ or ‘rather no’ and ‘don’t know’ (51%) a different picture emerges, where half of the public is not very clear as regards their participation in a prospective referendum. This seems a more plausible outcome (in view of the already mentioned generally low attendance in Polish elections). It also points to the relative fragility of the foundations for the following seemingly comforting results of the question: “If a referendum on Poland’s joining the EU were to be held next Sunday, how would you vote?” (Only those who declared that they would take part in the referendum and the small percentage of undecided respondents were asked this question). The result there seems to be a solid majority in favour of the accession (67%) as compared to 18% of the respondents who would vote against Europe. However, if we look at the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ voters as a proportion of the general public (not only those who intend to take part) we find that they constitute respectively 49 and 13 per cent of the Poles.

The support for European integration is by no means evenly spread among the different social groups. The social structure of support has remained rather stable for the last two years, with young people, managers, white-collar workers, private entrepreneurs, and the majority of students declaring to vote in favour of integration. On the other end of the spectrum we find farmers, who are the only social group where the number of opponents exceeds the number of supporters. Farmers are exceptional even in comparison to the rural population at large, which has by far more declared ‘yes’ voters. Farmers are also one of the social groups in which the proportion of respondents declaring that they will abstain from the referendum is relatively high. Similarly passive attitudes can be observed among older and retired persons as well as those with only very basic education. On the other hand the number of people with a university education who tend to declare that they will ‘decisively vote’ is almost double that of the rest of the Polish population.

Western commentators often perceive threats to integration as coming from the right wing of Poland’s political scene, hence an interesting and politically salient question is the support for integration among the party electorates. Here the present survey results are consistent with earlier polls in showing that the supporters of the main right wing party – the Solidarity Electoral Action (AWS) – are significantly more pro-European than their main political rival, the post-communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD). The electorate of the third largest party, the liberal Freedom Union (UW), is overwhelmingly pro-European, while the Polish Peasant Party (PSL), which mainly represents rural inhabitants, is the least pro-European of the ‘big four’ yet more than half of its supporters said they would vote ‘yes’ in the Euro-referendum. In general, the electorates of the parties whose predecessors were part of the pre-1989 political system tend to be less supportive of integration than those having roots in anti-communist democratic opposition. This fact and the above-mentioned correlation between the systemic transformation and the EU accession demonstrate the endurance of the historical divisions of the Polish political scene.

While the prospects for imminent membership of the EU are diminishing almost by the hour it may seem premature to make any conclusion about the results of the future ratification referendum. Despite the declining support, there exists a secure majority in favour of accession over those who declare to oppose it. The big question now is therefore not so much “How will they vote?” but “Will they go out to vote?

3. “Passions and Interests” – the perceived costs and benefits of integration

The high number of Poles who seem unable to decide whether or not they support integration leads analysts to believe that the attitudes towards the prospective membership in the EU are still not rooted in individual and collective interests, but rather remain largely a question of ideological or emotive commitment. This view is warranted by the present empirical research. The majority of Poles do not expect quick benefits from the integration. Only 4% of the respondents believe that the benefits will become manifest immediately after the accession, while over 51% believe that several years will pass before any such benefits occur and another 30% expect an even longer waiting period. On the other hand, only 7% think that no benefits are to be expected.

It is perhaps more significant to ask if people see the benefits for themselves as individuals. Significantly more respondents were convinced of the benefits of integration for Poland as a whole rather than for their company/organization or themselves personally. One third of the respondents believes that on a personal level benefits / costs will even out and another third has no opinion on the matter.

None of the respondents expect the benefits to be evenly distributed throughout society. Most Poles believe that the winners will be educated people, political elites and big business. On the other hand, groups such as farmers, blue-collar workers and small businessman are seen as potential ‘net’ losers of integration. Other perceived net beneficiaries, albeit less clearly so, are consumers, the unemployed, ‘crooks and frauds’. Thus EU membership is seen as benefiting the elite much more than the ordinary people. No wonder that major politicians from right to left are seen as firm supporters of integration, which is understood as an elite-driven process both in the sense of being in the interests of powers that be and sustained by the overwhelming consensus of decision-makers.

In the current cold climate of relations between Poland and the EU, criticism is often made of Poles’ alleged excessive expectations of material gains from the integration. The present research does not warrant such a conclusion. When asked about the benefits of integration, the Poles seem to agree on a single positive consequence, namely greater international security for Poland (70% agree, 26% of them firmly). 61% think that human rights will be better observed. Most Poles also expect to enjoy the increased opportunity to work and live in other EU countries (65%) and believe that the EU will assist Polish agriculture (60%). Only 41% (and only 6% decisively) expect the living standard of ‘ordinary people’ to improve as a consequence of EU membership. Therefore the benefits expected by the Polish public relate either to non-economic areas (security, human rights), assistance for the farmers (who are seen as disadvantaged anyway) or to opportunity for work abroad, which carries no immediate prospects of material gains for all.

At the same time there is a prevalent opinion about high costs of the preparation for membership. It is also expected that these costs will either be born by Poland (42%) or by both Poland and the EU (40%). Very few Poles expect the EU to assume most of the costs. At the same time most respondents are aware of the assistance Poland receives from the EU and expect this assistance to continue after the accession. According to a strong majority of the respondents this assistance is important for Poland. The Polish public seems to hold a complex view of the costs / benefits of integration, comprising both the awareness of the necessary contributions and sacrifices to be made by Poland and the significance of whatever the EU can offer to help the process.

Another popular stereotype, which can be falsified on the basis of empirical research, refers to the strength of Polish fears about losing sovereignty or national identity as a result of integration. As many as 77% of the respondents rejected the view that Poland would lose independence and 60% disagree that Polish tradition and culture would be weakened because of Poland’s joining the EU. On the other hand, there is less confidence about the economic consequences. More than half of the respondents expect the decline of some branches of industry and an increase in unemployment, and 40% agree that integration would bring about ‘the fall of Polish agriculture’ (with 44% disagreeing). Even more respondents (64%) think that foreigners would buy out Polish land.

The nature of any political debate – especially one of such a far-reaching and long- term project as the European integration – is such that it involves both a calculation of interests and outbursts of emotions. In Poland there are two opposite emotions towards integration: hope and fear. Hope is not only the strongest emotion (53%), it has also increased significantly since a comparable poll in October 1999. At the same time fear is the feeling mentioned by 43% of the Poles, which is also a somewhat higher result than 8 months previously. It is also significant that while hope is most strongly expressed by the declared supporters of integration, fear is more evenly spread among the opponents, supporters, and those who ‘don’t know’. It can therefore be presumed that fear of integration is a part of the overall ‘realistic’ assessment of the costs and as such will not stop people from supporting integration as long as they can believe that EU membership can also bring Poland the benefits they hope for.

The overall ‘map’ of emotions shows the prevalence of positive over negative feelings towards integration. Interest and approval are not only more often mentioned than unfavourability, indifference and boredom, they have also increased in comparison with the October poll.

To sum up, one can say that the Polish public has rather moderate expectations as regards the benefits of membership, combined with acute awareness of the efforts and demands that lie ahead. It is therefore remarkable that the positive emotional attitude towards integration prevails.

4. “Knocking at Europe’s doors”: accession negotiations and Poland-EU relations to date

According to many experts and journalists the present state of the relations between Poland and the EU is far from perfect. Major newspapers in EU countries describe Polish negotiators as inflexible, if not arrogant. The EU public is also informed about the gargantuan task of the restructuring of Polish agriculture and the difficulties of controlling Poland’s eastern borders against illegal immigration. In some countries, most notably Austria and Germany, there are fears of cheap labour and criminals from new member states. At the same time EU negotiators blame Poland for not doing enough to implement the community law. Poland however complains of the EU failure to set the date for membership of the first applicant countries, which it unilaterally declared to be 1 January 2003. It sees this as a sign of the lack of political will on the part of EU governments to go ahead with the enlargement. One observer summed up this situation of mutual recrimination: “Poland is pretending to prepare for membership and the UE is pretending to want it as a member”.

Now the question is how the Polish public sees these debates and disagreements? Are the Poles really expecting quick membership? According to the IPA research, only one in four respondents believe that Poland will become a member within the next three years, while almost 40% think it will happen in the next 4 to 5 years. However, when asked when the best time would be for Poland to become a member, the proportion of replies was almost exactly the opposite, with nearly 40% declaring 2-3 years as the most advantageous timing and 23% a period of 4-5 years. The Poles therefore seem to favour a relatively prompt entry yet they are ready to accept a slightly longer waiting period. However, nearly 70% of the Poles expect the membership to become reality no later than in 5 years’ time and they think such a period would be most beneficial. Very few respondents seem willing to accept a further delay.

Why would the Poles assume that the membership would not come as quickly as they think proper? When asked about the causes of the delay in the integration process, most respondents expressed the conviction that the causes lie both on the side of Poland and the EU.

Table 2. Reasons for delays in the integration process

Poland’s accession to the European Union will not be as quick as it was previously assumed.
Do you think that the causes for the delay lie mainly on the side of:
In percentage
Both Poland and the European Union 52%
Poland 21%
The European Union 15%
Don’t know 13%

Source: The Institute of Public Affairs

As we see, the Polish public does not distrust the EU and the above-mentioned atmosphere of mutual recrimination has so far made less impact than one could expect. This conclusion can be supported by the results of the following question concerning the perceived intention of the EU authorities. According to an overwhelming majority of respondents (67%) the EU wants Poland to become its member while only one person in five expressed the opposite opinion. Thus the Polish public does not generally doubt that the negotiations with the EU are conducted in good faith. At the same time most Poles (49%) believe that sooner or later Poland will join the EU and the question of membership is a foregone conclusion. However, almost as big a group believes that the question of Poland’s membership remains open.

There seem to be further differences concerning the way the Poles perceive the negotiation process. Thus while 44% of the respondents understand that the negotiations concerning the adoption of acquis communitaire really concern the timing of the adjustment and possible transition periods, as many as 37% think that Poland is negotiating the laws and regulations to which it will have to adjust (which would imply permanent derogation as regards parts of the acquis). This misunderstanding could lead to future disappointments and dissatisfaction with the results of negotiations and therefore it remains a challenge to information policy (most Poles feel they are not being well informed about the process).

Part of Poland’s political debate on Europe in the recent years concerned the importance of the so-called ‘tough negotiations’. There has been a tendency among some politicians to criticize the Polish negotiators of giving in too much to EU demands. Our research demonstrates that this sort of rhetoric is only partly credible for the general public. Although many Poles think that the present government is too submissive to EU demands, it is more significant that almost 60% percent believe that the conditions of Poland’s entrance to the EU will first and foremost depend on the country’s progress in the preparation for membership, in other words: on objective criteria and not negotiators’ skills and assertiveness.

It is also very significant that the Polish public believes that the ongoing changes and reforms in Poland are both necessary irrespective of the integration process and imposed by the EU. It seems that the public sees the EU as a kind of guarantor of the changes which need to be introduced. To put it differently, the Poles seem to believe that their country needs the EU to underwrite the changes for which there is not enough political will in Poland alone. It seems particularly significant that the view about the imposition of changes is particularly strong among the managerial class, white-collar workers and people with university education, that is the groups that decisively support both EU integration and the systemic transformation in general. Overall, as many as two-thirds of the supporters of the integration believe that the EU is imposing reforms on Poland.

This view concerning the perceived need for external pressure should probably be seen in the context of another widely shared belief, namely that Poland is not well prepared for membership (62%, as opposed to 26% who think that Poland is well prepared). The same pessimistic assessment of the country’s prospects in Europe is even more strongly expressed in response to the question about Poland’s future status in Europe.

Table 3. Poland’s Future Status in Europe

Do you think that after joining the European Union Poland will become:  
A truly equal member of this organization, such as other EU states?, or 22%
A second-class member, weaker, in a worse position 67%
Don’t know 11%

Source: The Institute of Public Affairs

While it can be observed that the opponents of integration tend to predict ‘second-class membership’ more often than its supporters, even in the latter group 56% of the respondents agreed that Poland would not be an equal member of this organization. Therefore – just as the fears related to the integration appear quite irrespective of the support and opposition – the pessimistic assessment of Poland’s future status in the EU seems to be related to the assessment of Poland’s present condition rather than a negative vision of the Union.

In the last part of this overview let us look at how the Poles view the EU in broader terms than the negotiating process.

5. “Which Way Europe?” – the perception of aims and workings of the European Union

After the decision of the Helsinki Summit to start membership negotiations with six new countries, thus increasing the number of candidates to 12, it became obvious that the enlargement from 15 to 27 member states would not be possible without a comprehensive reform of the institution of the European Union. Such a reform – it is argued – should go together with the rethinking of the aims and underlying values of European integration. As the debate continues in the present member states, the candidate countries are also asked to express their view on the subject. It is therefore important to see if and what the public opinion in Poland may have to say on the present and future state of the Union.

When asked what sort of community the European Union is and what it should be, the Poles demonstrated that their understanding of the aims of the integration was in prevailingly economic terms.

Table 4. Europe as a community

In your opinion, which value is most important in the European Union (A) and which should be (B)? A B
Economic community 80% 76%
Community of values 9% 28%
Political community 59% 37%
Community of culture 9% 16%
Don’t know 12% 11%

Source: The Institute of Public Affairs

Thus the Poles consider the EU first and foremost as an economic community and only subsequently as a political community. There is a certain amount of scepticism as regards the latter – more than 20% of those who consider Europe as a political community do not think this is what it should be. On the other hand a similar number of people believe that the EU should to a larger degree share the same values.

This ‘economic’ view of the European community helps explain the already mentioned belief in Poland’s future ‘second class membership’ in the EU as based on the assessment the relative weakness of Poland’s economy when compared with the western European average. On the other hand, the lack of appreciation of the political dimension of integration can be a serious problem considering the fact that the European project at its present stage seems to have exhausted the possibility to proceed in purely technocratic fashion. Successful integration will demand the mobilization of political will in both applicant and member states.

It seems that the Polish citizens are not very willing to transfer too much power and responsibility onto the European level. The majority of respondents believe that the EU should make decisions in areas such as fighting organised crime, ecology, assistance to poorer regions, and defence. On the other end of the spectrum were areas such as culture, education, healthcare and social protection, public morality issues (pornography, prostitution etc.) and foreign policy, which the respondents would like to keep at the national level of policy making. A more divided opinion concerns areas such as migration, monetary policy and the fight against unemployment with similar number of respondents opting for and against the transfer of competence to the European level.

A comparison with the result of the research among the citizens of EU member states shows that the Poles are somewhat less willing to give up many of the traditional prerogatives of the nation state. On the other hand, there is a congruence of opinion in areas such as organised crime, ecology and defence, where more European level decision making is generally seen as desirable. Also shared is the sense that certain areas of policy making do not belong in Brussels – something that one researcher called “spontaneous understanding of the principle of subsidiarity”.

There is also a certain amount of ambiguity as regards the evaluation of the EU institutions. Although the majority of the Poles think they can be described as efficient and honest, more people believe that they act in the interest of EU civil servants than being concerned with the interest of ordinary citizens. Once again, this perception as Europe as a ‘Club class’ is not confined to Poland, it can also be found among the present day citizens of the EU.

In view of the above results one can conclude that strengthening the Poles’ commitment to integration will require presenting them (and presumably also the citizens of other candidate countries) with plausible scenarios of the advantages and benefits of building a stronger Europe. In the final analysis the challenge is to create a Europe for all citizens and not just for a lucky few.


See: Support of Poles for EU integration in October 1999. Press Release, Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 1999.

For a detailed study of the attitudes of the Austrian public opinion towards Poland in the context of the enlargement see: Malgorzata Sikorska, Poland – Austria, Mutual perceptions during the enlargement of the European Union, Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 2000 (available in English and in German).

See: Central and East European Eurobarometer No. 8.

Source: Opinie o integracji Polski z Unia Europejska, Centre for Public Opinion Research CBOS, Warsaw, September 2000.

See: Maciej Lubienski, Poland – The European Union. Analysis of Daily Press, Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 1998.

See: Jacek Kucharczyk, European Integration in Polish Political Debates 1997-1998, Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 1999.

See: Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, The Second Wave of the Polish Reforms, Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 2000.

Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, Completed Transformation. Integration into the EU, Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 1998

For more detailed analysis of farmers’ attitudes see: The future of Polish agriculture and rural areas in view of European integration, Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 1999.

Compare: Jacek Kucharczyk, ‘Yes, and furthermore no’. Political Parties Towards the Prospects for European Integration, Institute of Public Affairs, Warsaw 1997.

Compare Aleks Szczerbiak, Public Opinion and Eastward Enlargement. Explaining declining Support for EU membership in Poland, Sussex European Institute Working Paper No 34, May 2000.

See Mark Leonard, Rediscovering Europe, Demos, London 1997.


Tr@nsit online, Nr. 20/2001
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