Torun and Sierpc, Poland – Poland managed to dodge the economic crisis that ravaged EU countries a decade ago and instead became one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. A growing urban elite is typically liberal and pro-European.
The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) relies on the support of the traditionally conservative rural areas.
Its leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski – who holds no formal position in government but is Poland’s most influential political figure, has often railed against the Brussels establishment and has been at loggerheads with the EU over issues such as migration and the rule of law.
The European Commission launched an infringement procedure against Poland in April, accusing the country of undermining judicial independence.
The European Parliament elections on May 23-26 will see PiS face off an alliance of centrist, liberal parties, the European Coalition – including the former ruling party, Civic Platform. The pro-European coalition lags just two points behind Law and Justice, according to polls.
But Kaczynski has to reconcile his euroscepticism with an electorate that has seen the economy grow and opportunities for young people multiply since being part of the 28-member union. According to research conducted by the European Parliament in 2018, 54 percent of Poles believe being part of the European Union has been good for the country – higher than the EU average.
According to the Warsaw-based Public Opinion Research Centre (CBOS), support for Poland’s membership of the EU reached a record high in April, with 91 percent of Poles being in favour of membership.
The far right and some corners of the PiS advocate for “Polexit”.
Alongside far-right eurosceptic figures elsewhere in Europe, such as Italy’s Matteo Salvini and France’s Marine Le Pen, Kaczynski is rallying supporters behind the idea of changing the EU from within, calling for a looser union based on national identity and sovereignty.
Al Jazeera spoke to people in Torun and Sierpc, conservative heartlands in central Poland, to speak about EU support and criticism of the bloc.
‘I’d like our voice to count more’
Lidia Maslanka, 49, tax adviser, Torun
“The election is important because we are the part of the EU, and an important part.
“How did we benefit from EU membership? I think we developed as a country: our infrastructure, education.
“I don’t think [anything should change in the EU], but I’d like our voice to count more.
“Poles should have the same level of earnings as the rest of the EU. We are a very well-educated nation, more than others in Europe. But they demand more from us than from others.
“Poland must remain Poland. We have our own preferences, habits and culture and everyone should respect that. The young generation is different. They leave, but we elders, we will always respect our culture.
“We will never be English, French or German. We will always be Polish because we have our own roots. And we will always strive for this, right?”
‘Europe is inseparable’
Agnieszka Janik, 59, market trader in Torun
|Agnieszka Janik says Europe is a ‘melting pot’ [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]|
“Being in the EU changed a lot in my life, and voting for the new parliament means we have the chance to define the face of the EU for the next term.
“My son works in Germany. He can do so legally and with no hassle.
“I think that Poland is located almost at the centre of Europe and shouldn’t be out of the European Union.
“Europe is a melting pot for me, where everything has been mixing through history, [and] what was before influences today. That’s why I think that Europe is inseparable.”
‘Poland and the EU are like kids in the playground’
Wojciech Witkowski, 48, fireman and painter, Sierpc
|Wojciech Witkowski believes Poland has benefited from being in the EU [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]|
“The EU is a blessing for Poland.
“Poland’s location is very specific. We’re are always exposed to Russian influence. Without the EU things could have been different. Also, in terms of development, investments. My son lives in Berlin, he went to school there, and now he lives there. I’m also seriously considering retiring abroad, for instance in Spain.
“I often meet artists and travel to countries that are not the EU members, for example, Ukraine. I travel there for art festivals, and the difference is huge. Poland, Ukraine and Belarus were starting from the same point [as former Soviet states].
“Poland and the EU are like kids in the playground. Everyone sticks together, and Poland is the little child sitting in the sandpit and banging everyone’s head with a spade while saying, ‘Play with me because I’m important’. And the group wonders why they should play with this evil boy.
“The Polish government has to have an enemy … so that they can scare the citizens. This is being done to upset the EU.
“They keep on asking why we don’t respect the rule of law, the constitution, and the government keeps on doing this to make the atmosphere more tense. Then they tell the citizens that the EU attacks Poland.
“There is a lot of negative coverage about the EU on state TV. But not right now, because there will be an election, and the EU is currently good. There are other enemies, but after the elections, it will be back to normal.”
‘The EU is good for farmers and other people’
Piotr Strzesniewski, 44, construction worker, Sierpc
|Piotr Strzesniewski is not certain who he will vote for in the coming elections [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]|
“I think [the EU] is good for farmers and other people. They also give some development money to youth, and things like that. Somehow [I feel I have benefited from being part of the EU], but I don’t receive any subsidies myself.
“As for now, [I might vote for] Law and Justice, but I’m not sure 100 percent.
“The government gave the 500 Plus [benefit for all second and subsequent children, equivalent to 116 euros per child, paid monthly until age 18]. The opposition doesn’t like it and promised [more], but I’m wondering what they would do if they were actually in power.”
‘In Poland, we have quite a strong national identity’
Zygmunt Manasterski, 21, student at the University of Warsaw
|Zygmunt Manasterski, a student, says Poland should have influence in European affairs [Ylenia Gostoli/Al Jazeera]|
“I don’t watch too much TV, and there aren’t many campaign billboards where I live, 50km from Warsaw. I think the campaign is subtle and less irritating this time.
“[The European Parliament] may not be as close as the local Parliament, but I think it’s very important that we have some influence over what is happening in Europe. I don’t like it when somebody makes decisions for me. I would not be very pleased if, let’s say, the French, Germans and Italians [draft] a law and say everyone has to abide by it.
“We once were in a federation of different countries and we didn’t quite like it. So I think that there should be something in between. You can’t just say that we all have to be separate. We have a shared economy and laws.
“Quite often it creates a bit of a problem when someone says that he feels pride about where he is from, then he is called a nationalist.
“In Poland, we have quite a strong national identity. We are proud of being from here, I was raised in this environment.
“I don’t have a lot of memories of before the European Union. We have plenty of things that have been bettered from being part of the EU. I live in the countryside, in a village. I see how much even my primary school has benefited from it. The EU is a good idea.”
Torun and Sierpc, Poland – Poland managed to dodge the economic crisis that ravaged EU countries a decade ago and instead became one of the world’s fastest-growing economies. A growing urban elite is typically liberal and pro-European. The ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) relies on the support of the traditionally conservative rural areas.