State sovereignty, anti-elitism and coal: how national politics affect the implementation of the EU Green Deal in Poland

By Lieke Wiersum

In December of 2020, the EU Green Deal was finalized. Since then, progress has been made, but efforts are still insufficient to reach the climate targets formulated in the Paris Agreement. Although all 27 member states signed the deal, many are significantly behind others in implementing suitable measures (Climate Action Tracker, 2021). Poland, characterized by an economy strongly focused on coal production, is one of them. The right-wing populist and national-conservative orientations of the government’s leading party seem to play a role, but how exactly do national politics hinder the implementation of the EU Green Deal in Poland?

The clashing principles of state sovereignty and EU solidarity seem to partially explain the resistance against the Green Deal. State sovereignty means that countries have the right to make decisions about their destinies without interference from other states (Hamper, 2017: 1). The EU Green Deal undermines this principle in that it involves legally binding rules that are laid down in EU Law, making them superior to national law. Solidarity on the other hand is founded on the idea of a common purpose between states, which allows for the sharing of resources and equalization of service standards (Keating, 2020, p. 332). These principles of sovereignty and solidarity are characterized by opposing demands, and the ongoing discussion that emerged after the Euro crisis underlines how much that fact puts pressure on the question of EU integration (Hayward and Wurzel, 2012, p. 2).

The EU Commission emphasizes that the Green Deal requires solidarity between member states. This might explain why some member states, such as Poland, show little interest in committing to it. As underlined by Wyrzykowski (2013: 229), “sovereignty is the watchword in Polish constitutional debate on European integration in politics, diplomacy and in the courtroom”, and is viewed as a persevering concept in public life. The Paris agreement further exposes the hesitance from states like Poland to implement the Green Deal as it was initially meant to lay out set targets for the member states but was later amended in a way that allows member states to do this for themselves; opening up their moving space. This signifies the influence of more Eurosceptic nations that put their national interests upfront and desire little interference from other states, but it is rather detrimental to the progress of the European Union towards meeting its climate goals. Poland is moreover found to be sceptical of decision-making on the supranational level, specifically on topics of energy and climate (Huber et al., 2021: 1005). The far-right creates a narrative aimed at the actors that want to increase the EU’s ability to make top-down decisions, depicting them as internal enemies that are working against the Polish state (Deimantaitė, 2020: 66). Fully committing to the Green Deal can be viewed as intermingling with Poland’s national sovereignty by laying targets and measures down in law, and it is clear that Poland would rather avoid taking this leap.

Another aspect that builds on these mechanisms is the country’s ruling party’s attempt to ‘replace the elite’ in civil society (Bill, 2020: 1). Elitist theory assumes that a rather small number of elite actors and groups governs institutions of power. Under the veil of ‘elite replacement’, Poland has been observed to counteract this perceived elite by stripping state support from organizations that are viewed as hostile to the leading political party PiS. Scholars have argued that political parties that sympathize with anti-elitist ideas are more likely to oppose European integration (Polk and Rovny, 2017, p. 365). It becomes clear that this also applies to Poland’s example when we consider the fact that the EU has often been equated by the leader of PiS with ‘the corrupt elite’ that counteracts the Polish people (Csehi and Zgut, 2021: 1). This makes it not unlikely that the Green Deal might be viewed as a project planned and directed by this elite, intended to obstruct and undermine countries like Poland, and it would explain why the country has been blocking many of the efforts to fully implement the deal.

One more straightforward argument remains, and its core can be found in the pro-coal stance of the PiS party. The party won the 2015 parliamentary elections and according to Brauers and Oei (2020: 4), this victory can partially be attributed to their promises to protect the coal industry. Seeing that Poland is the largest coal producer in the EU, its willingness to commit to the Green Deal is quite a crucial element to the deal’s success. Vice versa, it is clear that the prominence of coal in the economy hinders Poland’s dedication to the Green Deal since meeting its targets inevitably entails a reduction in coal production, and this is heavily resisted by coal corporations and unions, as well as the government and their coalitions (Brauers and Oei, 2020: 8).

Pro-national sovereignty, anti-elite ideas and strong pro-coal stances are persistent characteristics in Poland’s national politics that continue to hinder efforts towards a sustainable EU as aimed for in the European Green Deal. The country’s parliament, especially after the victory of PiS as in the 2015 elections, holds on tightly to their valued national sovereignty at the expense of active solidarity with other EU member states. Anti-elite ideas are prominent in the state’s domestic politics and have been connected to higher levels of hesitation to integrate into the EU. The fact that the country’s economy highly depends on the production of coal only adds more fuel to the fire, combining everything into a breeding ground for resistance against the Green Deal. Regardless, not all hope is lost. Polish citizens have been calling on their politicians to invest in climate action, especially now that the country is experiencing droughts and storms more frequently than ever before (ClientEarth, 2021). As concern seems to be spreading, one can only hope that this will create the pressure the parliament needs to move towards integrating the Green Deal into their politics.


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