Monday, 20 June 2016

Economic Convergence Not Migration is the Major Issue Facing the EU

The EU referendum campaign in Britain has been focused almost entirely upon the question of immigration. The specific focus of the Leave campaign has been about the supposed need to restrict immigration, arguing that if Britain left the EU it could control the amount of immigrants arriving from other EU countries. This of course diverts attention away from the failures of the Conservative Party government and the policies of austerity, onto blaming immigrants. It fails to account for the huge positive economic effect of immigration in Britain and it also does not consider what is driving migration and at how these trends may change.

The major source of EU migration over the past decade has been from the Central and Eastern European countries that joined the EU in 2004 and 2007 (I exclude Croatia here due to the short time it has been a member of the EU). The biggest of these countries is Poland (with a population of around 38 million), with Poles making up the largest number of EU migrants. 

In 2014 it was estimated that around 685,000 Poles lived in the UK, up from 150,00 in 2004. This is a very active section of the population, with almost 90% either in permanent work or education and one that pays much more in taxes than it takes out in benefits. Although the Polish community is now a well established part of British society, the number of immigrants arriving has significantly slowed, growing by just 60,000 between 2010 and 2014. In contrast more than 140,000 Poles have moved to Germany for work during the same period. 

The reasons for the large outflow of Polish workers over the past decade are clear. The CEE countries underwent a huge economic decline after the end of Communism, although this decline was much shallower than in many of the countries of the ex-USSR. These countries' economies were deindustrialised, creating huge pools of poverty, large social inequalities and deep structural unemployment. In Poland prior to joining the EU its economy was in stagnation and unemployment had reached almost 20%. 

This neo-liberal transition to capitalism brought huge benefits to the stronger economies in the west. Western companies began to buy up and monopolise large sections of the CEE economy. They had a new and expanded market for their products in the east and access to a fresh supply of highly skilled and cheap labour. This movement of capital is less evident than the movement of people to many people in countries like Britain, despite the fact that they have hugely benefited from it. 

The CEE countries had already been incorporated into the international division of labour as semi peripheral economies prior to EU entry. It was therefore inevitable that there would be a period of mass migration westwards. During the initial stage following EU entry only Ireland, Sweden and the UK opened up their labour markets to the new countries from CEE (there was a 7 year period before all countries were compelled to do so). It is to the great merit of the then Labour Party government that it immediately opened up its labour market to CEE workers. However, this was done in an extremely disingenuous manner. The official estimates of the government  prior to EU enlargement were that just 13,000 Poles would come to Britain. By not openly recognising the reality of the situation, the government not only failed to prepare the British population for this social and demographic change, but more importantly did not carry out the  necessary investment (in public services and housing) that was needed to facilitate the flow of people. Rather than fully using this as an opportunity to develop the country,  migrants were seen to be undercutting the wages of British workers; whilst public services, housing, transport, etc countinued to deteriorate. In the wake of the economic recession and years of austerity,  UKiP and the Conservative Party have found a receptive audience for their xenophobic and reactionary ideas. 

The scaremongering tactics of the Leave campaign is based upon the idea that Britain will continue to be 'flooded' by hoards of migrants from CEE. However, as shown above, the flow of immigrants from countries like Poland has significantly slowed, a trend which is likely to continue. Although the countries of CEE are still poorer than those in the west, since joining the EU these countries have drawn closer to the living standards in Western Europe. The graph below shows GDP per capita in the CEE countries (100 = the average of the whole EU). As we can see, in almost all of the CEE countries (excluding Slovenia) GDP per capita has grown closer to the EU average over the past decade or so. This has been particularly marked in countries such as the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania. In some CEE states (particularly the Baltic countries) this  stalled following the outbreak of the economic crisis in 2008, but the trend towards convergence has once again continued. 

The reasons for this convergence are two-fold. Firstly, has been the inflow of EU funds to these poorer countries, which for the first time since the transition from Communism represented some sort of redistribution of capital eastwards. During the transition private capital tended to be tied to privatisations and/or the buying up and monopolisation of large parts of these countries' economies. Although the EU funds are insufficient in size and not concentrated on developing these countries' productive sectors, they have at least developed parts of their infrastructure and helped to boost economic growth. This allowed many of these countries to avoid the economic catastrophe suffered by  many countries in Southern Europe following the financial crisis. Secondly, the ability to move and work in other EU countries eased unemployment and allowed people to work and earn abroad. Many of these workers have returned to their home countries with savings and new skills. 

The CEE countries are still blighted with huge social and economic problems and are considerably poorer than the countries to their west. They face their own rise in nationalism and political authoritarianism, which will  be boosted by Britain leaving the EU.  Whatever happens on June 23 Britain will still belong to Europe and be tied to the European economy. If divisions between the richer and poorer countries start to diverge again then new waves of migration will open up (whether these be legal or illegal). The issue is not whether people are free to move within Europe or not. This is a right that benefits everyone in the EU, not least the more than 2 million Brits that live in other EU countries. Rather, the real problems are the large economic inequalities between EU countries and regions and whether Europe can further integrate and converge. 

Wednesday, 27 April 2016

First they Came for the Communists.....

The ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) has unleashed a campaign of anti-Communism in a country

where there are hardly any Communists. They have begun a process of decommunisation, where there is no communism. The aim of the government is to ideologically push the country further to the right and open the way for greater attacks on the wider left.

A regional court has sentenced 4 activists from the Communist Party of Poland for allegedly supporting a 'totalitarian' regime and propagating communist ideology in their newspaper and website. They have been sentenced to 9 months of limited freedom, with obligatory community work and a fine. 

They have been accused of breaching an article in the penal court that states: 'Whoever publicly promotes a fascist or other totalitarian system or state or incites hatred based on national, ethnic, race or religious differences or for reason of lack of any religious denomination shall be subject to a fine, the penalty of restriction of liberty or the penalty of deprivation of liberty for up to 2 years'. Previous attempts to add a ban on Communist symbols were rejected by the Constitutional Court in 2011 after protests in Poland and abroad that this would violate human rights.

The case against activists frm the KPP had previously been brought to court in 2013, by the PiS MP Bartosz Kownacki. Howeverf the Prosecutor's Office refused to initiate the proceedings. This changed after the election of PiS and on 31 December 2015 the Regional Prosecutor's Office in Katowice issued a case in the Regional Court in Dábrowa Górnicza. The act stated that the activists were publicly promoting a totalitarian system by publishing articles ' directly related with the communist system and Marxism-Leninism, which in the context of historical experience is contradictory with democratic values'

This potentially means that anyone now using the work of Marx (or other Marxist writers and ideas) could be prosecuted under the law. This is a direct attack on democracy and human rights and could be used to repress other left-wing activists, academics and groups. 

Simultaneously, the PiS government has recently passed in parliament a “decommunisation” bill, whose stated aim is to remove any remaining Communist symbols from public spaces. However, there are no Communist monuments in Poland anymore, nor streets or squares named after figures such as Marx or Lenin. The bill rather aims to remove from the public sphere any reference to the Polish People's Republic (PRL) and to the country's socialist and anti-fascist history. 

The Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) has published a list of street names that should be removed. These include the names of the 19th Century socialists Ludwik Waryński and Stefan Okrzeja who died fighting the Tsarist regime. They are also threatening to change the name of the street in Warsaw named after the Dąbrowski Battalion, which comprised of Polish volunteers in the Spanish Civil War. In the city of Gdańsk some right-wing politicians want to rename such a street after Margaret Thatcher. Such name changes are widely opposed by the residents of these streets, although their opinions are not being taken into account. 

A further element of this 'anti-communist' drive, is to remove monuments commemorating the role that the Red Army played in defeating Fascism (600,000 Red Army soldiers died on Polish soil). In the city of Rzeszów (which was liberated by the Red Army) a decision has already been made to remove such a monument. However, opinion polls show that around 80-90% of the city's residents do not want the monument removed. 

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Egyptian Man in Critical State, After Latest Racist Attack in Poland

A 40 year old Egyptian man is in a critical state in hospital after undergoing an attack by a group of nationalists in Gdańsk.

The attack took place on Sunday afternoon as the man returned home from a party of Egyptians. The attackers beat him until he lost his consciousness. As yet none of the attackers have been caught.

This recent attack is an example of a wave of racist attacks that have taken place in recent months, as an atmosphere of nationalism and hostility to immigrants has risen.

These include:

- In September a group of 13 year olds in Świnoujście beat their colleague because he was black. They admitted that they had been inspired by the slogans of an anti-immigrant demonstration that had been held in the city a few days earlier. 

- A few weeks later in Poznań a Syrian was brutally attacked by a young nationalist, ending up in hospital with serious injuries. In the same city a Chilean dancer was recently attacked being told to 'f**k of out of the country'. 

- In Szczeciń a well-known musician from the group Raggafay was attacked being told 'he was not Polish

- In Kraków a bouncer attacked a British Sikh man, as he did not like his turban.

- In Warsaw a few weeks ago a group attacked a Pakistani man in a park, resulting in him going to hospital with serious injuries. 

- Recently in the city of Rzeszów a Portuguese exchange student was beaten by a professional soldier. 

(Information in this article taken from the website )

Thursday, 7 April 2016

As in the Case of Refugees, Young People are the Most Conservative on Abortion

One of the most  disturbing recent developments in Polish politics, is the growth of conservative attitudes amongst Polish youth.

This was previously revealed during the refugee crisis, with the youngest age groups being the most hostile to taking in refugees. Therefore, whilst 69% of 18-24 year olds and 51 % of 25-34 year olds are against Poland accepting refugees; this is much less for the elderly respondents: 41% (35-44), 36% (45-54), 32% (55-64) and 33% (64+).

A similar trend is observable on the issue of abortion. As can be seen in the graph below, those that  support tightening the current abortion law (that includes those that are in favour of a total ban) are in the age group 18-24. They display a far greater hostility towards abortion than any other age group, with the most liberal opinions held by those aged between 45-54 and 55-64.

A common perception throughout the transition from Communism, was that society would become more socially liberal as the market economy and democratic political system developed. However, we can now see that those who lived during Communism actually tend to be more liberal than those who have been born in under the current system.

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Polish Prime Minister Supports Complete Abortion Ban

The Polish Prime Minister, Beata Szydło, has stated that she supports a complete ban on abortion in Poland. She has said that she backs the 'Stop Abortion' campaign, that is collecting signatures in order to put forward a citizens' bill to parliament to completely outlaw abortion in the country. It also proposes that women (and not only doctors as is the case currently) can be imprisoned up to 5 years if they are caught having had an illegal abortion.

The campaign to completely outlaw abortion is being led by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. This week a letter published by the Presidium of the Polish Catholic BishopsConference, stated that Poland should not halt at the present 'compromise' on abortion, but move towards a total ban. This letter will be read out in Churches throughout Poland this week. 

Poland already has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Abortion was made illegal in 1993, in a move that was ludicrously described as a 'compromise'. It banned abortion in all but three circumstances: 
- where there is a high probability of severe and irreversible damage to the foetus or where it will have an incurable life-threatening disease
- where a pregnancy threatens the woman’s life or health; 
- where the pregnancy is the result of a criminal act. 

It is worth remembering that in the early 1990s, the parliament rejected a petition signed by 1.5 million people for a referendum to be held on this matter. Also, the then President Lech Wałęsa vetoed a resolution passed in parliament in 1994, that would have eased some of the restrictions (allowing women in poor health or difficult social circumstances to terminate a pregnancy). 

Last year only around 1,812 legal abortions were carried out in Poland (around 500 more than during 2013). The inevitable result of this situation is that huge numbers of Polish women are forced to either undergo illegal abortions or travel abroad to have their pregnancies terminated. It is obviously the least well off women, that are unable to travel abroad, who most often have to have illegal 'backstreet' abortion in Poland. It is estimated that around 150,000 illegal abortions take place in the country each year , which carry significant health risks. 

Thursday, 17 March 2016

Members of Far-Right Invited to Polish School

It has been reported that members of the  National-Radical Camp (Obóz Narodowo-Radykalny - ONR) visited a school in the city of Płock on March 1. They were invited by the school's Head Teacher to address pupils at a commemoration of the 'Cursed Soldiers' (the underground fighters against Communism after the Second World War). 

The ONR  is associated to the pre-war far-right organisation: the Polish National Movement (Ruch Narodowy - RN). At the event in Płock, members of the ONR boasted that this was the first time since 1934 that they had officially been welcomed into a school. The representatives of the ONR wore the insignia Falanga on their sleeves (see pictures). The Falanga became a popular symbol for Polish far-right nationalists in the 1930s; and continues to be adopted by different organisations of the far-right in Poland today. 

The ONR regularly display the Falanga and have marched under such slogans as: 'Poland for the Poles'; 'Hang Communists'; 'Ban Homosexuality' and 'Islam is the Death of White Europe'. 

Pictures from the ONR's facebook page show members of the ONR wearing the Falanga symbol, standing alongside the Head Teacher of the school. 

Events such as this make it important that the anti-racist march orgnised in Warsaw this weekend is attended by as many people as possible. 

Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Constitutional Crisis Enters New Phase

The stand off between the Polish government and the Constitutional Tribunal has entered a new stage.

The Constitutional Tribunal has ruled that the amendments made at the end of last year by the Polish government to the operations of the country's top legislative court are unconstitutional. This was shortly followed by the Polish government announcing that it would not recognise nor publish this ruling, as it contravened the very rule changes that the government had introduced. 

What we have here is a constitutional crisis, with the highest organs of the state openly coming into conflict with each other: The Court has refused to abide by the government's new rulings as to how it should operate; and the government is not accepting the rulings that this Court is now making. Article 190 of the Polish constitution states that all the rulings of the Constitutional Tribunal are universally binding and final and must be published by the Prime Minister's Office. 

All of this comes at a time when the Polish government is facing increasing criticism from abroad. The Venice Commission is about to publish a report on the state of Poland's democracy, with a leaked prelimary opinion from the report stating that the ongoing constitutional crisis in Poland poses a danger to the rule of law, democracy and human rights. The government has said that the publication of this report should be delayed due to this leak, a request that has been rejected by the Venice Commission. 

In recent months divisions within Polish society have sharpened. The Committee in Defense of Democracy (KOD) have organised a series of large demonstrations, whilst the left-wing party Razem (Together) is currently holding a vigil outside the Chancellery of the Prime Minister and have shone an image of the Constitutional Tribunal's ruling on the walls of the building (see picture above).

Nevertheless, the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) is maintaining a strong lead in the opinion polls and has itself been able to mobilise large numbers of its supporters on the streets. The language used by leading members of PiS and the government against the opposition movement and those that criticise it is becoming increasingly hostile. The President of PiS, Jarosław Kaczyński, has said this week that a broad coalition lies behind KOD that would like to reduce Poland to the level of a colony. He stated that they are the same people that like to blame Poland for all the negative things that have happened in Europe over the past century; that laugh at everything connected to patriotism, who broke all cultural standards after the the Smoleńsk tragedy and have trampled on all that is sacred in Polish culture. 

Likewise in a speech this week  attacking those who have criticised the government from abroad, President Andrzej Duda said that:

We are all intelligent people. We are proud of our fatherland. We are people who understand the processes of history and who understand what it means that our state is being used. And that we are being treated as second category people means that it is high time that we said that here in Poland that we are people of the first category. 

Although PiS was the first party in Poland's modern history to have gained an overall majority in parliament, it still only won 38% of the vote in an election with just over a 50% turnout. Neither the government nor the opposition command a majority in society and both sides are increasingly coming into conflict with one another. With the government demonsing those in the opposition as being of the 'worse sort' in Polish society, then the possibility of further conflicts and even a new authoritarian crackdown increases.