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Populist friends: Poland, Italy forge alliance

January 9, 2019

Italy's Matteo Salvini and Poland's Jaroslaw Kaczynski share a similar brand of nationalist politics. As the two meet in Warsaw, they are hoping to create a united conservative bloc for the European Parliament elections.

Matteo Salvini
Image: Reuters/A. Bianchi

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is set to meet Jaroslaw Kaczynski, head of Poland's ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), in Warsaw on Wednesday. Ever since Italy's populist coalition government, comprised of the right-wing League and anti-establishment Five Star Movement, took power last year, it has represented a natural ally for Kaczynski and his fellow Central European populist leaders

At a meeting in August 2018, Salvini praised right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for erecting barbed-wire fences along his country's border with Serbia and Croatia. And Orban, in turn, views the anti-immigrant Salvini as a "hero and like-minded ally" for his efforts to stop refugees accessing Italy via the Mediterranean. 

Italy's government has alleged that migrants spread diseases in Europe — a claim that Kaczynski himself made four years ago during an election campaign. And Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte agrees with his conservative Czech counterpart Andrej Babis, who promised his compatriots the country would not accept any refugees in order to protect "European civilization."

The right-wing populists' social agenda

Italy and Poland's populist leaders not only share a xenophobic worldview, they are also pursuing a similar welfare agenda. It's a strategy that helped both factions come to power. Poland's PiS introduced a monthly children's allowance, lowered the retirement age and subsidizes apartments for young couples. Lawmakers in Warsaw are also currently also debating additional benefits for pensioners.

Jaroslaw Kaczynski
Kaczynski's brand of right-wing nationalist politics has often put him at odds with the EUImage: picture-alliance/ZUMAPRESS/O. Marques

Poland can afford these welfare policies, which take some financial strain off ordinary Poles, thanks to the country's strong economy. What's more, they strengthen the government's political position vis-a-vis the country's already weak political left.

Read more: As coal mines shutter, Polish miners seek a way to adjust

Italy's populists, too, are pursuing an ambitious welfare agenda. During the election campaign, they promised to introduce a basic income and lower the retirement age. They had wanted to make good on these promises by incurring even more public debt, but when the European Commission threatened to launch an "excessive deficit action" procedure, the Italian government backtracked and finally abandoned its plan in December 2018.

PiS approval ratings in decline

Italy's support for the PiS comes at an opportune moment. The party is under pressure domestically amid a corruption scandal involving the financial regulator and a Polish bank. The head of Poland's Financial Supervision Authority (KNF), Marek Chrzanowski, reportedly saved a bank owner from financial ruin, yet in return demanded a certain lawyer receive a sizable bribe. After the deal came to light, Chrzanowski resigned. But this was only the tip of the iceberg in a scandal that was to engulf the PiS.

Polish liberal daily Gazeta Wyborcza wrote that central bank chief Adam Glapinski had backed the KNF's conduct. Glapinski, who is considered an ally of PiS leader Kaczynski, has since demanded the article be taken offline and has threatened to sue the responsible journalists. But now, it has also come to light that one of his employees earns a staggering €15,000 ($17,000) per month — a figure that does not go down well with the PiS leadership, which likes portraying itself as a socially responsible party. After all, it has "law" and "justice" in its very name.

Poland's Financial Supervision Authority
A bribery scandal has put Poland's Financial Supervision Authority in the crosshairsImage: picture-alliance/NurPhoto/J. Arriens

Poland's general elections are coming up this year and while the PiS is still leading opinion polls, it is increasingly concerned about its public standing and eager to appeal to a new demographic of voters. It appears the party is now flirting with the far-right, as it celebrated the centenary of Poland's independence together with the country's radical nationalists.  

And this week, a xenophobic 28-year-old parliamentarian from the radical nationalist camp was made a deputy secretary in Poland's Ministry of Digital Affairs. Many Poles take issue with his openly pro-Russian stance, but the PiS seems to ignore it, despite its own anti-Russian rhetoric. And neither, too, does the PiS seem to mind Viktor Orban's or Matteo Salvini's Russia-friendly leanings.

A conservative bloc

Salvini's meeting with Kaczynski in Warsaw will be a boost for the PiS, as well as Orban's Fidesz party. Both parties consider themselves the vanguard of a Europe comprised of strong, sovereign nations who oppose the "Brussels dictatorship." Domestically, the PiS will frame the new Polish-Italian alliance as proof that Poland now plays a significant role in European politics. And internationally, the Polish-Italian alliance serves to bolster Europe's right-wing bloc ahead of the European parliamentary elections in May 2019.