Tens of thousands of Poles took to the streets of more than 100 cities in the country and some European capitals this Sunday to claim their Europeanism in the face of this week’s monumental challenge to the European Union from the ultra-conservative Polish government. “Poland is in the EU and we are proud”, “We remain”, thousands of voices shouted in chorus in the Warsaw Castle Square, with the Hymn to Joy of Beethoven in the background, symbol of the Union, and European flags waving. An official in his fifties who did not want to reveal his name for fear of reprisals, summed up why he had attended the protest: “Poland is being left alone, it is isolating itself, and we are afraid.”
The ruling of the Constitutional Court that last Thursday declared the prevalence of Polish law over European law met this Sunday with massive resistance from the opposition and citizens. Warsaw Square was overwhelmed by between 80,000 and 100,000 protesters, according to a spokesman for the City Council. quoted by the newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza-, older than young, who gathered at six in the afternoon. Despite the pandemic and the fear that nationalist groups would blow up the protest – they tried, but the police prevented them from approaching – the summons of Donald Tusk, former president of the European Council and leader of Plataforma Cívica, the main opposition party, was exit.
“We want an independent, European, democratic Poland that respects the law and justice. These principles are crushed today by the power devoid of conscience and morality ”, said the leader before the crowd. For Tusk, Poland is at its most important historical moment since the fall of communism in 1989. The protest sought to defend that Poland is European – more than 80% of the citizens declare themselves Europeanists – and that the message, almost of help, would reach to Brussels. But above all they wanted it to be clear to the ultra-nationalist and conservative government of Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party (PiS). “I am here because I care about Poland. I am Polish and European, and I want to continue being so, ”defended Karolina Skora, a 25-year-old participant in the protest who works in international relations.
The demonstration was also a vehicle of civil resistance, a scream against authoritarianism and the reactionary drift of the Government, which attacks the rule of law by undermining the independence of judges, but also the rights of women, of the LGTBI collective, of migrants and other minorities. Wotel Sova, a 55-year-old economist, explained – while waiting for the interventions of 12 leaders of politics and civil society to begin – that the Constitutional ruling is part of “policies that are leading Poland towards an autocracy.” “It’s crazy; we don’t know how other countries will react. We do not want to be excluded in Europe ”.
The co-organizers of much of the protests across the country, the Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD, in its Polish acronym), share that uncertainty. “We want to show that what the government says and does is not what the people want. We want to continue in the European Union and we are afraid that Polexit is already really happening ”, explained to this newspaper before the protest the pro-democracy activist and vice president of KOD, Lukasz Szopa.
That estrangement from Brussels began in 2015, when the PiS came to power, according to Bogdan Klich, senator for Civic Platform and president of the Foreign Affairs and European Union committee of the Polish Senate. “The process began when the government undermined the role of the Constitutional Court,” he says. The challenge of Thursday’s sentence “supposes a legal Polexit, which opens the door to a real one,” says Klinch.
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The former Polish Ombudsman, Adam Bodnar, who served between September 2015 and July 2021, has suffered in person the difficulties of facing the Executive of Mateusz Morawiecki. For Bodnar, the court ruling is “a dramatic decision from the point of view of the rights of Polish citizens”, because it guarantees that “the Government will continue to exercise its authoritarian power.” The former defender, who addressed the protesters from the stage, previously assured EL PAÍS that the PiS “will continue to do everything possible to subjugate the judiciary, the last branch of the institutions of the entire Polish system that tries to be independent.”
Faced with the authoritarian drift of the Executive, the resistance of Polish society remains, as has become clear this Sunday. The PiS however tries to undermine it through control of the media. “Since the end of 2015, the government has used the same methods as the communist regime on public radio and television. It has turned the public media into a great propaganda machine, ”explains Klich. The private ones are also threatened and watched. “The drama is that for geographical reasons, in towns and small cities where one third of the citizens live, the only source of information is the public media.” And in them, the message of the Government is amplified these days: that Thursday’s sentence defends national sovereignty against European interference in decisions that affect Poland. This Sunday the sign that accompanied the information on the demonstrations read: “Protest against the Constitution,” according to Reuters.
Marta Lempart, a women’s rights activist and founder of the Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) movement, is optimistic. As he explained to this newspaper hours before going on stage and addressing the protesters, Polish civil society has never been as organized as since 2015, the year that marked the before and after in the country. The end to the drift of the Government is that citizens “protest and organize,” he assures. To pressure Warsaw, but also the European institutions “to fight for the Poles.”
“At some point, I know, this far-right populist government will fall and we will achieve a secular state with human rights as a fundamental part of democracy,” says Lempart. After the rally in Warsaw, the activist led a march with a small group of protesters to the PiS headquarters.
“We will win, without any doubt, the question is when,” said the Plataforma Cívica senator. Klich recalled the massive strikes of 1980, still under the communist regime, “which led to the establishment of the Solidarity union and which brought together 10 million people.” This type of mobilization will return and the Poles will end “with the process of the decline of democracy,” he predicted.