Tens of thousands of Poles rallied to show their support for EU membership on Sunday evening, days after a ruling by the country’s constitutional court that inflamed tensions between Warsaw and Brussels.
Donald Tusk, leader of the main opposition Civic Platform party, called the protests in response to the ruling, which said that parts of EU law were incompatible with the Polish constitution and sparked questions over whether the country could one day leave the bloc in a so-called “Polexit”.
In the capital Warsaw, thousands of people gathered in the square in front of the Royal Palace in the city’s old town, waving EU and Polish flags, holding placards with slogans such as: “I was born in [communist Poland]. I prefer to die in the EU,” and chanting: “We are staying.”
“I came here because I don’t want Poland to be outside the EU. I remember what communism looked like and I don’t want Poland to go back to that again,” said Miroslaw from Warsaw, holding a Polish flag. “Being here is what being a patriot means to me.”
Demonstrations also took place in many other Polish cities, including Poznan, Krakow, Katowice, Gdansk and Lublin. In Warsaw, nationalists held a smaller counterdemonstration and attempted to drown out pro-EU speakers in front of the Royal Palace.
The ruling by the constitutional tribunal last Thursday brought to a head years of tensions between Warsaw and Brussels, which have been building since the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party (PiS) embarked on a series of reforms that give politicians sweeping powers over judges.
The EU’s top court has ordered Poland to reverse several aspects of the overhaul, including an attempt to purge the Supreme Court, and a new disciplinary regime that allows judges to be punished for the content of their rulings.
However, PiS insists that the EU has no right to intervene in its judicial reforms, which it argues are a purely domestic matter and necessary to overhaul a lumbering and inefficient system.
Earlier this year Mateusz Morawiecki, the prime minister, asked the constitutional tribunal, which has been filled with government loyalists, to rule on whether provisions of EU law being used in the dispute conflicted with the Polish constitution.
The tribunal’s ruling that there was a conflict has sent shockwaves through the EU and sparked questions in both Poland and other EU capitals over whether the central European nation, once seen as the big success of the bloc’s 2004 eastern expansion, could one day leave.
PiS politicians dismiss the idea that they want to leave the EU as nonsense designed to undermine the party in the eyes of the more than 80 per cent of Poles who want to remain within the bloc.
“There will be no Polexit. That is a propaganda invention which has been used against us many times,” PiS’s leader, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, said last month. “We want to be in the EU. But at the same time, we want to remain a sovereign state.”
However, critics say that even if the party does not set out to leave the EU, it could end up setting in train a dynamic that eventually leads to a Polish withdrawal, much as David Cameron’s attempts to renegotiate the UK’s relationship with the EU when he was British prime minister culminated in Brexit.
“We need to show the government that there is a limit to them destroying the country,” said Maria Kaminska, a 42-year-old who joined the protest in Warsaw. “I am more and more ashamed of this country. I feel European, I believe in western values. I feel part of the European community and I want to stay there.”