Donald Tusk has managed to do something truly amazing. He has riled his own political base and brought them out onto the streets to demonstrate with his opponents. He has managed to cause such social anger over his decision to sign the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) that for the first time in a generation’s memory Poland is standing at the forefront of an international protest movement.
The protests started on-line, after the government announced that it would sign ACTA in Tokyo this Thursday. Government websites were blocked, closed down or replaced with counter-propaganda in an impressive show of technical skill and political ingenuity. One of the major complaints of the protestors has been that the government has failed to consult with society over its plans to sign ACTA. So the government talked amongst itself, then announced that it would open up a period of social consultation, but only after it had signed the agreement (sic).
At this point the scale of the dissatisfaction was unclear. Many commentators claimed that the blocking of government websites was counterproductive and that such ‘internet activists’ would not be able to translate this into numbers on the street. They were wrong.
As I walked up Świętokrzyska Street towards the offices of the European Parliament in Warsaw yesterday afternoon I was met by a wall of noise that I have rarely experienced at a demonstration in Poland. All too often whilst huge numbers of people have demonstrated in Europe against wars, austerity and their like, only a handful have turned up to similar mobilisations in Poland. But this time it is different. The social and political breadth of the 1000 or so demonstrating yesterday was impressive. Nationalists with anti-fascists; liberals alongside conservatives; Catholics amongst atheists; football fans standing with students. The atmosphere was angry, but good humoured and the chants witty and cutting. The symbols ranged from Polish flags to the masks of the occupy movements. The slogans sometimes called for ‘people before profit’ and at other times equated the coming censorship with the communist system. It was truly eclectic, the potential birth of a new social movement.
So why Poland? Why in a country where political passivity has become the norm have young people reacted so strongly. What the government has not realized is how directly ACTA could affect the lives of young people in Poland. The Internet nowadays is not simply an additional activity, it is a means of life, where people communicate, socialise, share information and, crucially, work.
Throughout the more than 20 years since Communism collapsed in Poland the number of graduates has soared. By the early 2000s Poland had the highest number of university graduates as a share of the under 30 population in Europe. Young people have done all that could be expected of them. They have educated themselves, learnt foreign languages, immersed themselves in the new information technologies, embraced the country’s entry into the EU and taken literally and seriously the notions of freedom and democracy. All this has now been thrown back in their faces.
Firstly, the economic system upon which all this has been built has not been able to provide the jobs and security that this generation needs. As well as there being 2 million unemployed in the country, 1/3 of all working Poles are on temporary, insecure contracts. This is the highest figure in Europe and as it does not take into account the large and growing section of society that is ‘self-employed’ then it is greatly underestimated. It is now becoming a rare thing to meet someone with a secure full-time contract.
This is a dangerous social mix. Young people are now more educated, aware and socially active in Poland than at any time in its history. And the government has previously recognised this, producing pages upon pages of documents, declaring its wish to harness society’s human capital, build so-called social capital and to create a governing administration built upon social consultation. Its actions around ACTA show all of this for what it is – empty words.
ACTA threatens the one area of social life that young people have been able to claim as its own. It threatens to further commodify and extend the influence of monopolies over cultural life. It potentially criminalises people’s everyday activities and brings new suspicion and fear into their lives. ACTA is a bill that is unclear, ambiguous and full of uncertainties that can be interpreted in different ways. For this reason alone it should be opposed.
This reality has resonated amongst young Poles. It has been common during the protests of the past few days to equate the decision of the government to the political repressions of the previous system during the 1980s. The present elite in Poland never wastes an opportunity to wrap itself in the flag of the previous opposition movement and reminisce of the days when they had to fight for freedom. The young generation is now the guardian of such freedoms and its turning against this elite that it deems wants to take them away.
And this goes further still. A central pillar of the economic and political transition in Poland has been its incorporation into the EU. This has been seen as a guarantor of economic development, social progress and democratic freedoms. This is now not so clear. The economic turmoil in Europe is fragmenting the EU and the response at the centre to by-pass democratic institutions in order to impose austerity programmes is enhancing social resentment towards the Union. And now this. ACTA was debated and agreed within the EU, which is imposing a pressure upon Poland to sign up to it. The claim that Brussels even protects civil freedoms is now being questioned by many, hence the decision to demonstrate outside of the European Parliament building yesterday.
The furore around ACTA may dissipate and the government could eventually have its way. But the events of recent days show that the gap between the government, the political class and the population is growing. The governing Citizens’ Platform (PO) initially emerged as a supposed social movement that opposed the corruption of the elite. Tusk rode to power in 2007 through harnessing the fear in society that the Law and Justice Party (PiS) were pushing Poland down the road of authoritarianism. Yet now, increasing numbers of people, not least from those who had once supported him, see Tusk to be standing in the place where Kaczyński once did