Saturday, March 26, 2016

Saturday Morning Musings - snakes, terrorists and the future of Poland

For some reason, I had always thought the phrase "snake in the grass" to be Australian. Apparently not. According to, this metaphor for treachery, alluding to a poisonous snake concealed in tall grass, was used in 37 b.c. by the Roman poet Virgil ( latet anguis in herba). It was first recorded in English in 1696 as the title of a book by Charles Leslie.

This snake was photographed at Metz east of Armidale by Gordon Smith. Gordon thought that it was probably an eastern brown snake. Reputedly the second most venomous snake in the world, these are truly big snakes with an average size of 1.1–1.8 m (3.6–5.9 ft). The maximum recorded size for the species is 2.4 m (7.9 ft)!

It has been a little while since I mentioned Gordon's blog. Subtitled a pictorial journal of life in rural Australia, lookANDsee is a rather wonderful photo blog. If you haven't visited or haven't visited for a while, you should have a browse.

I don't like brown snakes. They frighten me. We had gone out for lunch with some friends of my parents on a property to the east of Armidale. Bored, I decided to go for a walk after lunch. It was a hot, still day. As I walked though the paddock  near  the house, a large brown snake crossed the path in front of me. They really are big. I fear in this case I chose boredom over adventure and returned to the house!

Staying with the snake in the grass theme, detailed forensic investigations are slowly knitting together the details of the Brussels attacks, including the apparent links with the earlier Paris attacks. It seems clear that this was a significant group, attacks some time in the planning.

Thinking of these attacks in military terms, I think that it is helpful to remember that this type of weapon takes time to assemble and once used cannot be used again. As we saw in Bali in 2002, the logistics involved are quite significant.The first Bali bombing was followed in 2004 by the Australian embassy attack in Jakarta and then in 2005 the second Bali bombings. However, the attacks and subsequent police follow up seem, touch wood, to have blunted the capacity to carry out further attacks. I am not saying that they won't occur, but the cells involved had been some time forming  so repetition becomes more difficult each time the weapon is used.

Meantime, the repercussions drag on. In a post, Who is right?, AC reflects rather sadly on the recent political changes in Poland. To my mind, there is a nasty bigoted streak in the Polish governing Law and Justice Party, the use of rhetoric intended to divide, the focus on perceived threats.

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło has announced that Poland will not be able to take in asylum seekers from the EU for now following the terrorist attacks in Brussels. The stated position is part of an anti-immigration rhetoric that has been running for some time now.  The Irish Times reports that the Polish shift on migration is in line with public opinion in the country: 64 per cent of Poles want their national borders closed to asylum seekers, according to a poll by the Adam Smith think tank. This type of attitude is widely held across Eastern Europe.

Many Australians and especially on the right would agree with the stated Polish position. Nevertheless, the attitude of the Law and Justice Party that the EU is there to benefit Poland, not Poland to benefit the EU is (as phrased) unsustainable. .During the twentieth century, Europe's conflicts imposed the two bloodiest wars in human history on the world. During the Second World War, an estimated 5.7 million Poles lost their life as a consequence of the German occupation. This was followed by the Soviet occupation.

Ethnicity lay at the heart of the Second World War and its associated horrors, political ideology at the base of the Soviet Occupation, state totalitarianism was common to both. The Poles themselves were not totally innocent victims.

Poland cannot have it both ways, to have its cake and eat it too.  One of the drivers in the formation of the EU was the desire to avoid another European conflict, to resolve the ethnic tensions that had divided the continent. The break-up of Yugoslavia and the subsequent Yugoslav wars showed the continuing power of ethnicity, of old wounds.The language used by the right wing parties and by Eastern European leaders suggests that the lessons have still not been learned.

Two million Poles now live in Germany and the UK. The Polish economy is deeply entwined within the European economy. Poland depends upon European institutions for its very survival. The resurgence of Russia, the memory of a past in which Poland was a victim of external forces and its geographic position, makes many Poles deeply fearful.

There is, I think, a view in Poland that the Atlantic alliance and especially the US provides a shield. That of itself a rather fragile defence. The alliance is deeply linked to NATO and to the European institutions. It's actually very difficult to see the US as such becoming involved in or threatening a war to protect Poland. The Ukraine revealed the limitations of alliance power.

Both the US and the EU have been guilty of external political and diplomatic overreach. Georgia demonstrated that, as did the Ukraine. Brussels itself has been guilty of internal overreach as well..Institution building takes time. Australia has been a Federation for over 100 years and divisions remain. Like Canberra or for that matter Sydney, Brussels seems to believe in standardisation for the sake of standardisation. In doing so, in also pushing EU expansion so hard,the EU has created its own problems.

All that said, the EU needs too, and I think will, muddle through.Certainly the rise of nationalism, a nationalism based on ethnicity and riven by the divisions of the past, complicates matters. The EU is the only barrier against the re-fragmentation of Europe.

For Poland's part, EU membership is just too important in a practical sense for Poland to withdraw or to threaten EU survival. Should push come to shove, and barring an attack of political madness, the Law and Justice Party and the present Polish Government have just too much at stake including the survival of Poland itself. They may posture, and posturing is important and can push people in strange and extreme directions, but their freedom to move on critical issues is limited so long as Poland remains a member of the EU.

Finally, in considering the European political scene and others as well including Donald Trump or Bernie Sanders in the US,  it pays to distinguish between particular manifestations and the underlying causes.

Law and Justice views on abortion, homosexuality and gender roles may be conservative to the point that a woman, for example, cannot get an abortion even if the law allows it. The more extreme manifestations of those views should be challenged, but it should also be recognised that there is a strong thread of social conservatism in Poland such that many feel threatened at the pace of social change. The Soviet occupation and the communist system suppressed  elements of those views, but they remained.

In economic terms, at least by European standards, Poland has done well in recent years. However, growth has been poorly distributed. In some parts of the country, living standards are the lowest in Europe, lower than in Soviet times. This is reflected in the shift within Law and Justice from something approaching a neo-conservative economic policy towards a left wing populist state intervention policy, designed to appeal to disadvantaged people and areas.
Then we have the law and order mantra. This appeals to those who feel threatened and who wish stability and certainty. This also appeals to the authoritarian tendency that appears to exist in Polish history and especially in the inter-war period.

The geographic divides in Polish politics are stark. I do not pretend to properly understand all the elements, but it seems clear enough. A political map shows a country divided. In the west and north the Civic Platform Party dominates. This is the area that seems to have benefited most from growth and is more cosmopolitan. Law and Justice dominates in the more socially conservatively ane economically more depressed east The map shows the votes in the 2010 presidential election,

Sitting in Australia and prognosticating on events in Europe and especially countries such as Poland that I have never visited is, of course, a dangerous occupation. Nevertheless, my view remains that the EU will muddle through, that this is just another part of the process of creating a new political entity. Given this and my assessment of Poland, I think that Poland will stay in the EU and that, consequently, Law and Justice will find its wings clipped on some key issues.

The alternatives are, I fear. too dreadful to comfortably contemplate. One is the break-up of the EU. A second is an EU controlled by the forces of the nationalistic right. A third is Poland's exit and its entry into a grey zone, a marchland between Europe and an expanding Russian sphere of influence.



Anonymous said...

"Poland cannot have it both ways, to have its cake and eat it too"

I expect, occasionally, hopelessly, over the past 1,000 years of European history, there may have been a Pole or three who dared to dream of cake, instead of ashes. If there was any country who did more than its fair share of the heavy lifting in the conflicts of the 20th century, while retaining their honour and humanity, I am yet to read of it.

But no, no cake for them!


Jim Belshaw said...

Good morning, kvd. I take your point. Poland was simply gobbled up in the progressive dissolution of the once powerful Polish Lithuanian Commonwealth. By 1795, Poland and Lithuania had vanished from the map of Europe. However, internal disputes played a role in that dissolution. The Poles were not simply helpless victims.

It would, I suppose, have been more accurate to say that the current Polish Government cannot have its cake and eat it too.It wants the benefits of EU membership without the limitations. It can't have both. And I don't think that Poland has a real choice; that was my point. It is possible, I suppose, for a conservative Poland to align with Russia - that would be the logical outcome of some Law and Justice attitudes - but I don't think that that's what most Poles want.

In terms of AC's concerns, I too find aspects of Law and Justice repulsive, including their willingness to override constitutional constraints. However, we need to recognise that Law and Justice do reflect attitudes and concerns within a large geographically specific Polish constituency. Law and Justice are playing to those concerns in not always very savory ways. However, they are legitimate concerns that need to be recognised if not agreed with.

In the end, so long as Poland is a member of the EU, that membership limits Law and Justice's freedom to act. My feeling, and I am again reflecting on AC's concerns, is that Law and Justice will overreach and things will balance.

Anonymous said...

Specifics I can completely agree with! Give yourself two kpi's :)


Jim Belshaw said...

Snorts with laughter. kvd!