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2007-01-08 14:31:59 / News read 3041 reading
Special Report on Poland: Exorcising the Past, Imperiling the Future. The News Journal of Catholic Opinion - European Supplement 2006-2007.

What's behind Poland's Conservative Turn?
By Barbara Crossette
European Supplement 2006-2007

In the Autumn of 2005, not long after one of the most conservative parties in Poland unexpectedly emerged from an election with enough legislative seats to form a right-wing coalition government, some like-minded Polish members of the European Parliament mounted an exhibition at a parliamentary building in Strasbourg. The show was called, innocently, “Life and Children in Europe,” but it was shocking. Most distressing to some who saw it were photographs of children in Nazi concentration camps juxtaposed with images of fetuses and a damning quote from Mother Teresa, an implacable foe of abortion until her death. The link between abortion and the crimes of Hitler was obvious.

Ana Gomes, an outspoken Portuguese Socialist member of the European Parliament (MEP), went with two Belgian colleagues to the exhibition, determined to remove several particularly offending panels. In an e-mail exchange in August 2006, Gomes said, “They tried to equate women who abort with Nazi crimes. Two colleagues and I decided to go into action.” A scuffle ensued, and the relevant parliamentary committee was called in to settle it. The peacemaker, a Socialist MEP from Poland, ordered the controversial panels removed. “She was savaged in the Polish media,” Gomes recalled. “We had to give interviews all over to support her.” Months of campaigning followed by Poland’s new government, which engaged battles that Western Europe thought had long ago been won by voices of moderation. Poles would call for, among other things, the restoration of the death penalty, an end to support for stem cell research and no movement on strengthening gay rights at a European level. To Krzysztof Bobinski, director of the Warsaw-based pro-European Union foundation Unia i Polska (the Union and Poland), it seemed the European Union’s largest new member was choosing to move in an opposite direction on social issues from the “old” E.U.

“I think we went into the period of freedom after 1989 with a kind of liberal consensus—liberal in terms of free-market economics and also liberal in terms of morals and manners,” Bobinski said during an interview in Warsaw during September 2006. In 1989, a relatively open election in Poland led the way to the collapse of single-party communist rule across Central and Eastern Europe. Nearly two decades later, Bobinski said, the current government and Poland’s powerful Roman Catholic church may not be signaling the early death of liberal Poland, “but there hasn’t been an attempt made like this since 1989.”

Poland was on a spoiler trajectory before last year. On the eve of its 2004 entry into the European Union, which brought Poland out of the European cold for the first time in generations, Heather Grabbe of the Center for European Reform in London described the country as “the E.U.’s new awkward partner.” (Bulletin of the Center for European Reform, February/March 2004.) The issues then were different, mostly budgetary and procedural. Poland was under a government led not by the religious-conservative right but by former communists. But the sense that a nationalistic Poland had the capacity to be difficult for the sake of being difficult was already a concern. Now, a broad assault on social issues dear to “old” Europe intensifies this worry.

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