As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization prepares for its annual summit this week, there is much talk about tensions between Europe and Donald Trump’s United States. But just as the American public is divided over Mr. Trump, Europe has its own deep fissures. The most prominent example is Brexit, Britain’s vote, months before Mr. Trump’s election, to leave the European Union. A close second may be the EU’s clash with Poland, its largest Eastern European member.
One reason Poland infuriates the EU, according to Ryszard Legutko, is Warsaw’s unswerving pro-Americanism. After Brexit, Poland will be “the most Atlanticist country in the EU,” says Mr. Legutko, a professor of ancient philosophy who also represents Poland’s conservative governing party at the European Parliament.
“That’s why we have the notion of strengthening the eastern flank of NATO with American troops,” he tells me in an interview at the Polish Consulate in Manhattan. “I do not think that a substantial reduction of the U.S. military presence in Germany will happen soon, but one cannot exclude such a possibility, once we remember how quick President Trump can be in taking decisions.”
If Mr. Trump is a harsh critic of American elites, Mr. Legutko plays that role, albeit with a less demotic style, in the European context. In his 2016 book, “The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies,” he writes:
“The European Union reflects the order and the spirit of liberal democracy in its most degenerate version.”
That, he tells me, is why the EU “doesn’t merely have individual dissidents in its midst, but also dissident states.”
The prevailing EU attitude “not only toward Trump, but also toward Hungary, Poland, Italy and other dissident governments,” he says, is that they are “accidents, unnatural deviations, that could and will be quickly corrected.”
In the Polish case, Brussels is attempting to apply some muscle toward that end. Poland’s governing Law and Justice Party enacted a law, which took effect this week, imposing a retirement age of 65 on the country’s Supreme Court judges. The aim was to force out some long-sitting liberal jurists and replace them with more-conservative ones. Brussels accuses Poland of violating the EU treaty and is threatening to suspend the country’s voting rights in the union.
“More than 80% of Poles want the legal system to be reformed,” Mr. Legutko says indignantly. “They have had a very bad experience with the courts.” In the Polish Supreme Court—“a body of 100 judges, so with nothing in common with the U.S. Supreme Court”—there are “still members who faithfully and shamelessly served the communist regime in the past.” After communism’s fall in 1989, he says, there were “only 48 cases of judges being charged with collaborating with the communist regime by legalizing its political repression.” In 42 of these cases, the disciplinary courts refused to start legal proceedings. “In five cases, the judges were acquitted. Only one judge was found guilty.”
The Polish government insists its actions are a necessary debridement of the judiciary’s rotten corpus. The EU disagrees, Mr. Legutko says, because “it is liberalism incarnate.” In his book, he writes that “Poland shook off the communist yoke at a time when the Western world had already reached a phase of considerable homogeneity and standardization.” The smart set in Brussels finds the Poles irritating, he tells me, because they want Poland to be “indistinguishable from other EU nations.” An “exotic Poland” that pursues its own political course is unacceptable.
The EU’s elites, Mr. Legutko says, are unbending in their belief that “one has to be liberal in order to be respectable, that whoever is not a liberal is either stupid or dangerous, or both.”
Seconds later, he corrects himself: “I mean the elites of the West, including those of the United States. Being liberal is the litmus test of political decency. This is today’s orthodoxy. If you criticize it, or you’re against it, you’re disqualified.” The world has “shrunk,” Mr. Legutko laments, “and the liberal paradigm seems to be omnipresent.”
What is that paradigm?
“A liberal is somebody who will come up to you and tell you, ‘I will organize your life for you. I will tell you what kind of liberty you will have. And then you can do whatever you like.’ ”
His response—and Poland’s as a sovereign entity—is unequivocal:
“Don’t organize my liberty for me. Do not try to create a blueprint according to which an entire society must function.”
That’s why, he says, Poland is “a dissident member of the EU, and the primary reason why it has been attacked so much. Not because we did something outrageous, but because of who we refuse to be.”
Hungary, under Viktor Orbán, is also an EU dissident. It was, Mr. Legutko says, “the first to be attacked by the elites because of Prime Minister Orbán’s rejection of liberal ways.” But he thinks Brussels sees Poland as a bigger threat:
“Hungary is a small country. Poland is not. The criticism is severe because we are more important, in a way.” What goes down particularly badly with the conservative government in Warsaw is the “condescension” of France and Germany:
“They say to Poland, ‘Why are you making so much noise? Why are you doing all of this? You were part of the club before. You received all sorts of benefits. Isn’t what you got enough?’ ”
No, Mr. Legutko answers. All these “benefits”—such as the elevation of former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to the presidency of the “toothless” European Council—mask the disproportionate division of power within the EU. Equality of member states exists only on paper: “The big players use the European institutions to serve their own interests, and the political architecture condemns everyone else to subordinate status.” He says this could become “unbearable” for Poland, especially after Britain’s departure.
You might think Mr. Legutko would sympathize with Brexit, but he regards it as a nightmare. “It was very bad for Poland, and very bad for the EU, because Britain had been a country of common sense.” He describes the response of European leaders: “First, they started by insulting the Brits—they were fooled, they were duped, they were illiterate. The old senile Brits and the uneducated young were those who voted to leave, and those who were intelligent voted to remain.” That reaction, he says, is “typical. You cannot behave differently from us without being a fool.” For an American, the word “deplorable” comes to mind.
Could there someday be a Polish exit from the EU? No, Mr. Legutko says emphatically. “We will probably be the last to leave the EU. We will switch off the lights.” The Poles overwhelmingly favor the union but are concerned about its direction: “Polish history has been very turbulent, as you know. We lost our independence for a long time. So even as we join the world, we are very watchful of our sovereignty, very sensitive about it.”
That watchfulness can shade into hypersensitivity.
An obvious example is the law passed recently criminalizing speech that imputes to Poland complicity in the Holocaust. Mr. Legutko prickles when I ask about the law, taking care to point out that he’s “not extremely enthusiastic about it.” But he says it is a “reaction to the widespread use of the phrase ‘Polish concentration camps’ and ‘Polish death camps’ in the media. We did not establish them. We did not control them. There were concentration camps in France, but nobody calls them ‘French concentration camps.’ ” Mr. Legutko says that he, like many Poles, “agrees with this antidefamation law’s intention and sees nothing objectionable with its text,” but he does concede that it is likely to prove “counterproductive.”
It irks Mr. Legutko that many of the countries that criticize Poland for its Holocaust law have their own legal curbs on speech. That inconsistency appears to reinforce his weariness with the West. “Under the old communist regime, the West was considered an alternative to communism. It was a hope, a place in which one could find refuge from an oppressive and stifling ideology.” Such refuge could be temporary, for “a student who obtained a scholarship in France or Britain,” or permanent, for one who defected. But for those who stayed in Poland, “even watching American or British movies, reading books, or listening to the radio was like a breath of fresh air.”
Mr. Legutko says that “this feeling that there is a different world, unlike the one I live in, is disappearing because of the homogenization of Western culture.” The results are depressing. “Wherever one goes, from Germany to New Zealand, one finds oneself in the power of the same liberal ideology, the same jargon.” Dissenters, he says, are few and marginalized. An incorrect utterance can lead to swift, career-ending reprisals.
Paradoxically, in Mr. Legutko’s view, one now finds greater diversity and freedom of thought in some of the former communist countries, including Poland: “Political correctness is less oppressive, and there are influential nonliberal ideas. The fact that the Catholic Church is strong in Poland makes a difference, because it gives us a mental and spiritual access to ideas and sensibilities that have evaporated in the secular West.
“We often say, half-jokingly and half-seriously, that now Poland may become a country to which people will defect”—people “from France, the Netherlands or Britain.”