Many Poles are angry about their country being dragged before the European Parliament like a naughty school child. But - as ever - some blame the government for it and others the EU.
The European Commission, the EU's executive, last week launched an inquiry into recent Polish reforms of the judiciary, the media, Internet surveillance and other areas of public life.
Since coming to power in October, the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) government has sought to sideline the constitutional tribunal, stack public media with placemen and introduce legislation that politicizes the civil service. The issues have split Polish society and play into Poland's intensifying culture wars between liberals and conservatives, with the country's place in the EU a key battlefield.
On one side are those who argue that Poland needs the EU to help it remember what democracy is about. "It's definitely good that the EU is looking into Polish democracy, because as soon as PiS came into power, democracy seems to have been shaken with every step the ruling party is taking," says Maja Piotrowska, who runs her own PR company in Warsaw. "The idea of the debate on Polish matters in the European Parliament was good, too, provided there are some effects from it."
In some quarters in Poland, though, Prime Minister Beata Szydlo's assertion this week in Strasbourg that Brussels was meddling in Polish affairs went down well. More than half of Poles said Germany should not have the right to judge Poland's democracy, a poll by SW Research for Newsweek noted this week.
"Today I have the feeling of injustice that we are the subject of an experiment," Szydlo told the European Parliament. "We are a sovereign state, we are a free nation. Polish problems have to be discussed and solved in Poland, because whenever third parties [have] tried to solve our problems for us, that was disastrous. There have been no violations of the constitution in Poland recently," Szydlo said. "We are Europeans and we are proud of it," she added.
Some locals were not fully convinced. "Szydlo succeeded in transforming the whole show into a noble defense of a weak country unjustifiably and unfairly attacked by enemies doing so in the interests of greedy bankers," Marek Ostrowski, a journalist at the weekly magazine Polityka, told DW. "As the debate was broadcast live to Poland, the Polish audience could truly believe that Szydlo was great," he added.
But the prime minister's defiance struck a nerve, even among non-PiS supporters. Some see the EU's move as confirmation of bias in the EU - and global order more widely - against "plucky Poland." This was compounded by the rating agency Standard & Poor's surprise cut to Poland's credit rating last week, which resulted in a sell-off across Poland's equities, bonds and currency markets.
"The debate will quite paradoxically improve PiS's PR," a Warsaw-based media professional in her early 40s and PiS convert says. "Our government was elected in democratic elections. People are still allowed to demonstrate their opinions as often and as loudly as they wish. Regarding free media, I seriously doubt if, in view of recent events, countries like Germany should have raised this subject at all," she says.
Others were impressed by Szydlo's performance, but skeptical about the message it conveyed. "The assertion that Poland has had bad experiences from foreign interventions in the past, while designed to appeal to her supporters in Poland, does not really answer the criticisms," Nicholas Richardson, a British lawyer in Warsaw, said.
Opponents preach to the choir
Mateusz Kijowski, the leader of the oppositional KOD, the "Defense of Democracy Committee" hastily put together at the end of last year to protest against the government's approach to the constitutional tribunal and media law, told DW he saw nothing new in Szydlo's speech in Strasbourg. "It's all talk, all propaganda, the government is doing all it can to ignore and marginalize us," Kijowski said.
Some believe that what PiS has done with the constitutional court and public media is a power grab. "However, few people see that KOD appears to be preaching to get back to a 'PO Poland,'" he said, referring to the previous government led by the liberal party. "KOD doesn't see, or doesn't want to see, that this was what paved the way for PiS to take over," says Wojciech Kosc, a reporter for bne Intellnews in Warsaw.
Paradoxically, Szydlo's defense of European values could also work against Polish isolationism, others argue. "The Szydlo speech in the European Parliament indicates a kind of 'Europeanization' of the 'barbaric' PiS. The prime minister referred to European values, and the whole speech had a clearly pro-European character," Jan Mus, an academic from Lublin, says.