Interview with Prof. Ryszard Legutko, co-chair of the ECR Group in the European Parliament
US President Donald Trump’s visit to Poland last week was hailed by the Polish government as a great diplomatic achievement, but it spread irritation in Brussels. It added to the existing conflict between the European Commission and Warsaw.
Prof. Ryszard Legutko, an experienced politician and philosopher, who had served as education minister and secretary of state in the chancellery of Poland’s late President Lech Kaczynski, was elected co-chair of the ECR Group in the European Parliament last week.
In an interview with New Europe, Prof. Legutko spoke about the issues that divide Brussels and Warsaw. He also explained Poland’s views and talked about the future of ECR after Brexit.
New Europe: The visit of Donald Trump was promoted by the Polish government. At the same time, it irritated Brussels. Do you think there is an exaggeration from both sides or has the meaning of the visit by the American president not exactly against the European question?
Prof. Ryszard Legutko: Donald Trump was invited as the president of the United States, the most powerful and the most important country in the world. It’s not the first time and hopefully not the last time that the president of the United States visits Poland or that the head of the Polish state visits the United States.
It is obvious that when a new president of the United States takes office, all governments want to host him and sign a new bilateral agreement. When Trump was elected, there was a violent reaction among the large part of the American society against the new president – verging on hysteria. There was also a violent and hostile reaction here in Europe, not only among European societies at large, but also in the European elites, including those in Brussels. Such a reaction was irrational.
Let me mention Donald Tusk, who is the president of the European Council. I think it was during the presidential campaign in the United States that he said something to the effect that his wife had told him that one Donald was enough. This is not a statement that a respected politician should make. It is not his decision to elect the president of the United States – it is the decision of the American people. So, whoever gets elected, he or she – there was a woman contender – would be the person to talk to. So, I find it ludicrous and most inappropriate that a representative of an external political organisation is commenting on the ongoing presidential campaign.
But be it as it may, all this noisy hysteria created a political vacuum. The Polish President seized this opportunity and came up as one of the first to send a message to the new US President– come and visit our country. And that was a very sensible thing to do. It might have irritated Brussels, and other European capitals, but so what? It is none of their business. Polish-American relations have always been very important. There are a lot of matters of common interest – security, energy, military cooperation, etc. There are also moral questions and identity questions that the new American administration and Poland see in a similar way.
The Polish government or the Polish president cannot wait until they are allowed to talk to the presidents or the prime ministers who are not looked at favourably by the EU or the major European players. When the German chancellor or French president wants to meet the president of the United States they never ask our permission, do they? Brussels or the European Union in general has to accept that individual countries have their own foreign policies.
There is a continuous clash between Brussels and the Polish government on various levels and topics. How long do you think this will last?
I hope that it’s going to subside. We met Jean-Claude Juncker recently. There was an ECR meeting – the ECR is the parliamentary group which we are members. Juncker made some conciliatory statement about the relations between the EU and Poland.
One should look at this clash from a larger perspective. In the EU there has been an asymmetry between western Europe and eastern Europe, or, as it is sometimes called, the old EU and the new EU. The countries of western Europe have taken the role of superiors, leaders, teachers, guides and protectors, which was good at the beginning, but now makes no sense and is often irritating. And the European Commission as an essentially old EU political instrument has been following the same strategy. Hence this grumbling about the Visegrad Group being revitalized, or about Trump’s visit to Poland, or about more assertive policies of Poland and Hungary.
Our friends in the old EU should accept the principle of equality of partners, which means that they should accept the new EU countries are no longer apprentices, or pupils to be scolded for disobedience. I hope therefore that this Poland bashing by the European Commission will stop. It is unjust, ill-informed, appallingly partial, arrogant, and counterproductive. Paradoxically the Polish governments should thank those who attack them. With every attack from the European Commission or the European Parliament, the ruling party in Poland goes up in the opinion polls. At the same time, such attacks generate anti-EU sentiments in the country in which had the highest percentage of the EU support in Europe. The lowering of this support is something that the European Commission contributed to but should not be proud of.
Speaking about the Visegrad countries, more or less, all four governments are in a collision with Brussels, but the critics are softened when concerns Orban, who is an ally of EPP, or Fico who is an ally of the Social Democrats.
The two bad guys are Poland and Hungary. Victor Orban deliberately stays in the EPP because it is the largest political group in Europe and it could offer him a shield against the attacks from the European institutions. Until recently it seemed to work. When he was coming to the European Parliament before, the house was divided more or less in half. One half was very hostile to Orban and the other half kept silent or tried to defend him. But recently, the EPP became divided too, and there was a lot of the Orban bashing inside the EPP, so this shield policy is not working as it used to.
Maybe the critics against Warsaw are so hard on Warsaw because you are on the ‘wrong side’?
Yes, indeed. The European Union has evolved into a monopoly: every country, every government, every political party is expected to profess and to hail enthusiastically the same federalist, centralist monoideological orthodoxy. When all speak in one voice and express the same opinions, it is called diversity. There is no better place to see it than the European Parliament: out of 751 members about 600 express exactly the same opinions on everything from climate, foreign policy, federalism, energy, moral issues. And this frightening and stifling homogeneity is considered to be pluralism. When it comes to real pluralism, that is, when governments or politicians have different opinions, they are dismissed and condemned as populists or Eurosceptics. When they speak, they are often heckled, booed and bullied.
I find this ideological monopoly extremely disconcerting, both intellectually and politically: intellectually because it insults our intelligence, and politically because it creates the double standards. When the government is in the mainstream, it can get away with anything. When it is not in the mainstream, it becomes an object of Orwellian spectacles. The Polish government was being attacked even before the elections.
Or take Hungary which is another example of monopoly and double standards. Hungary had been under the socialist rule for eight years and the government had been ravaging the country. Nobody in the European Parliament and the European Commission gave a damn about it – nobody. Not a single resolution was issued, not a single criticism was heard. The socialists are by definition good guys so they can do whatever they want. But Orban is outside the mainstream so he immediately became an object of orchestrated hatred.
The European Parliament criticised the Polish Government for limiting freedoms…
This is absurd. We are being attacked for limiting the freedom of speech whereas Poland is one of the freest country in the world as regards media and freedom of speech. There is the largest spectrum of opinions from left to right, and people may to express any opinion they wish.
In France, you can go to jail for voicing politically incorrect opinions. There and elsewhere certain subjects are taboos like immigration. About abortion or homosexual ideology one cannot talk openly because criticism is punishable by law. In Poland, one can be in favour immigration or against immigration, in favour of abortion or against abortion, in favour homosexual privileges or against them. No one goes to jail for voicing opinions and is not prosecuted. In Germany, there is practically one voice, and all the media from left to right go hand in hand with the government. The German media make a most depressing spectacle. Even the best eye will not see the difference between Süddeutsche Zeitung and Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung – though one is said to be on the left and the other on the right. There is no way the public can get the information when the media decide it is not appropriate. The suppressing of information about the immigrants, which happens in Germany or France would be impossible in my country.
The European Parliament is criticising us for limiting freedom of speech, but it has institutionalized censorship. I organized exhibitions in the European Parliament and two were brutally censored. We had to put black tape on the captions below the pictures so that the viewers could not see the text. This is outrageous. The European Parliament defending the freedom of speech? This is a monumental hypocrisy.
In 2004, when the new member states came to the European Union, they signed that they will in a fast or slow way introduce Euro in their economies. A month ago, there were some rumours that in Strasburg, three commissioners made a paper according to which all the countries of the European Union should be forced to adopt euro by 2024.
True, but the treaty does not specify a date. It may be in 2050, 2060 or later. We cannot be forced to join the Eurozone against the will of the people and against common sense. Especially after so many years of the Eurozone we can see that the system is not working properly. Creating euro was a political decision, not an economic decision. You cannot have the same currency on a territory in which there is too much difference in the level of economic development.
Some time ago the then prime minister of Poland Donald Tusk made a declaration that he would introduce euro in Poland by 2011. This was an empty declaration and could be explained only as Tusk’s customary way of toadying to the European powers that be. The Poles did not join the Eurozone and it was a wise decision: they were spared the effects of the financial crisis. Nowadays we are one of the fastest growing economies in Europe and the last thing we should do is to have euro and the problems that go with it. There is no authority that can force us to do something which clearly against our interest.
Let’s return to the European parliament. You were just elected co-chairman of the ECR Group. After Brexit, the leading force in the ECR group will be the Poles, given the fact the other groups from the other countries have an irrelevant number of members of the parliament. How do you imagine the future of the ECR Group and do you see any possibilities of new alliances in order to enlarge the number of deputies?
I want to be frank. The greatest attraction of the ECR group were the British Conservatives: after all Great Britain is one of the most important countries in the world. It was most unfortunate for the ECR and also for the EU, that the Brits decided to leave. The United Kingdom was one of those countries that brought common sense to the European Union. When they are gone, common sense might be in short supply.
We have started already contacting several political parties who have a chance to have representatives after the new European elections. As a reformist group, we are not interested in working with the parties which want to dismantle the EU. We want to continue building the reformist opposition in the parliament. The European Parliament is probably one of the few parliaments in the world in which there is no legitimate opposition. This is unhealthy and it should be changed. The European voters should have an alternative. Politics in which there is no alternative is bad, dangerous, and, in the long run, self-defeating.
How do you imagine the future of the European Union?
Well, it depends what course it will take. Take Juncker’s white paper. This is a very funny sort of document. It was meant to present real options for the EU but ultimately what it amounts to is that the “more Europe” strategy is absolutely the best and has no competitors. Juncker has just given us the same old boring schmaltzy song: with having more and more of the same, we are sure to find ourselves on the road to the bright, radiant future.
If that strategy prevails – let us hope it won’t after the new elections and the growing disillusionment with the EU – the prospects are gloomy. More of the same means repeating the old mistakes: more federalism and at the same time more obscure power structure in the EU. The main problem with the EU is that it wants more power, but simultaneously the mechanisms of power are less controlled and less transparent. The EU is the least transparent organisation that has existed in Europe since the fall of communism If you ask me about my prediction, I will say that we are likely to have more arrogance, more dissent and more conflicts.
Returning to the differences you mention between the old members and new members, we observe a real clash of cultures concerning social affairs, civic rights or rights of minority groups. For example, there is a totally conservative approach by the central and eastern European countries of the rights of homosexual, or mixed marriage. How do you explain this? Is it an obstacle to approach the different cultures and people inside the European Union?
Yes. This relates to what I previously called a monoideology in the EU. It has become increasingly oppressive and intrusive. Not to mention the fact that this new moral or rather immoral legislation is sharp contradiction with the spirit of Europe and its moral and philosophical tradition. If the founders of European integration suddenly came to life today, they would be abhorred. Very few countries are strong enough to resist this deeply anti-European and anti-civilizational onslaught. I am proud to say that Poland is one of those few.
The spectacle which unfolds before our eyes is really sad. The ideology is omnipresent – from advertisements and commercials, to mass culture and high culture. Children are being indoctrinated since a very early age, in fact since nursery schools, and that continues at every stage of education. One can hardly publish a book which does not follow politically correct rules of the language.
Recently I read that in Canada a law had been passed that the politically incorrect use of pronouns would be punished by law. When one reads such things, the association with communism immediately comes to mind – an attempt to control people’s words and thoughts so that a politically incorrect idea does not even occur in people’s heads. This is a new form of despotism, of a soft sort, to be sure, but most annoying and intellectually lethal. This is something, by the way, that has been predicted by political theorists and philosophers of modern democracy. It is enough to mention Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a book published in the first half of the 19th century, after the author visited the United States. In the last part of the book, Tocqueville made a prediction that a modern democratic society was bound sooner or later to produce a new kind of despotism. He called it despotisme bienveillant et doux – benevolent and mild. And his prediction is coming true today. It’s all wrapped up in this humanitarian language but most despotisms were like this. The despots always presented themselves as the defenders of the people.
I am happy to live in a country that is still able to resist this deadly disease that debilitates the Western civilization. This disease is reminiscent of what we went through under communism. The same hubris then and now. The same belief that nature does not count because man can change reality at will. The same contempt for human experience and for well-established moral rules. The communists wanted to reverse the current of the Siberian rivers, and now the liberal political elites redefine marriage.
There is a light years distance between the generation that started European integration and the current generation. The founders were people brought up on what was best of Western culture, primarily classical heritage and Christianity. The generation of today has been cut off, or rather, has cut itself off from Western culture and has acquired neo-barbaric inclinations.
Recently, you wrote a book with a very provocative title – against tolerance. Is it possible in an interview, in just a few words, to explain what do you mean by ‘anti-tolerance’.
Actually, I wrote two books on toleration, but it was some time ago. One was a collection of short pieces, and the other a serious academic work on the controversies over religious toleration in early modernity. The first one had a provocative title “I don’t like tolerance”. What I wrote in this book and in several other essays is that in our times the language was hijacked by the ideologues who changed the meanings of basic concepts. A while ago I gave an example of what happened to such words as “diversity” and “pluralism” which now have the opposite meanings. Those who today talk of “diversity” and “pluralism” intend to do something contrary to diversity and pluralism: they are imposing ideological monopoly. The same happened to “tolerance”. The word as it is used today implies a very aggressive restrictive political and ideological agenda to interfere deeply into the social fabric. In the name of tolerance, we are getting rid of conscience clauses, conduct anti-Christian crusades, indoctrinate children, intimidate dissenters, destroy family. And this aggressive attitude is what I noticed right after communism in Poland fell. To my astonishment, I saw that those who were speaking of tolerance had the biggest and the hardest sticks with which they hit all who had different views. “I am a tolerant open-minded person of progressive views, and you are an intolerant religious right-winger, so shut up” – this in a somewhat caricatured way illustrates how the concept of tolerance is nowadays used.
Of course, the problem with tolerance did not start today, though today it has taken a drastic form. When I was working on my second book on religious toleration, I detected this kind of thinking in earlier writers such as Voltaire. His “Treatise on Tolerance” does not really express a spirit of mutual civility among religions, but is a violent, almost obsessive attack on Christianity, particularly on the Catholic Church. Voltaire hated Christianity with all his heart and discovered that the word “tolerance” is a good tool to make this hatred more palatable.
This destruction of the meanings of the basic concepts is one of many symptoms of the deep crisis the Western Civilisation has fallen into. It came to me as a shocking surprise that in today’s liberal democratic societies there are more and more things that remind me of the communist system. Last year, I published a book in the United States on this very topic. It’s called The Demon in Democracy.
Interview with Prof. Ryszard Legutko, co-chair of the ECR Group in the European Parliament