Hardly a day passes without further escalations in the conflict between the Polish government and the EU. The Polish Constitutional Tribunal’s ruling on October 7, rejecting the primacy of EU law over the Polish constitution, marks a dramatic escalation.

It essentially puts Poland outside the EU’s legal framework, leading many critics to highlight the risk of a ‘Polexit.’ Looking beyond an increasingly technical debate about legal paragraphs, we use the latest eupinions trend data to grasp Polish public opinion in these conflict-laden times.

What’s at stake?

The magnitude of the Polish Constitutional Court’s October 7, 2021 ruling cannot be overstated. The primacy of EU treaties over member state laws is one of the core principles upon which the Union is founded. Without it, courts in each member state could independently rule on matters of commercial law, freedom of movement, or trade – essentially bursting the single market from within.

It’s worth remembering that initially, it was the fundamental rule of law issues and democratic backsliding in Poland that triggered this conflict. There was the highly controversial ‘Lex TVN’ media law, widely considered a direct attack on the freedom of the press in Poland, plus the various judicial reforms such as the introduction of a politically appointed ‘disciplinary chamber’ at the Polish Supreme Court with powers to discipline judges at Polish courts to name just a few.

Public opinion in Poland

These developments haven’t gone unnoticed by Polish citizens. Asked about the state of democracy in their country, a majority (59%) state that they are unsatisfied – opening a large gap with EU27 numbers overall. Fewer than half (45%) in other EU countries are dissatisfied with their respective country’s democracy.

What’s more, the number of Polish citizens unsatisfied with Poland’s democracy has grown significantly (+12pp) since September 2019. PiS, the right-wing national-conservative party, won re-election in October 2019.


A very similar picture emerges when asking Polish citizens about the direction of their country. Just 3 in 10 Poles believe their country is moving in the right direction, placing them well below EU average and at the bottom of all other countries, we have polled individually.

Again, the turning point came after September 2019, where a positive trend was broken, and the number of Poles satisfied with the direction of their country dropped from 47% to just 30% as of September this year.

trend democracy

Public opinion and the EU

These numbers stand in stark contrast with Polish citizens’ view of the European Union. First and foremost, they are overwhelmingly in favor of remaining part of the Union. A remarkably stable and solid majority of 83% would support their country’s EU membership in a referendum. This places them well above the EU27 average (72%). In short, for Polish citizens, a ‘Polexit’ was never in the books.

Chart EU referendum

Furthermore, almost 3 in 4 (74%) Polish citizens think there should be either more or the same degree of political and economic integration across the European Union. Just 1 in 4 (26%) think there should be less European integration.

European Integration

Playing with fire

Of course, the Polish government is well-aware of the strong EU support in their country. The latest large-scale pro-EU protests across the country will only have underlined what’s been clear long before. PiS members know that by escalating the fight with the EU to a degree that leads many to float the idea of a ‘Polexit’, they are playing with fire.

Therefore, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki keeps denying any ‘Polexit’ intentions, instead accusing the opposition and media of having invented the term. Having said that, refraining to use the word ‘Polexit’ is one thing, acting in a way that provokes it is another. As the Polish opposition leader and former President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, recently put it,

“…disasters such as, for example Brexit, or Poland’s potential exit from the EU, very often happen not because someone had planned them, but because someone had been unable to plan a wise alternative to such a potential drama.”

This brings back memories of David Cameron going to Brussels in 2016 to wrestle compromises and change the Union from within, aligning it more to the UK’s interests. Upon his return, he failed to convince his citizens back home and ultimately called the referendum.

The rest is history. Of course, the Polish case is different from the UK in many ways – not least because a referendum would very likely end differently. And still, the ‘change the union from within’ rhetoric, which both countries appear to share, has proved a slippery slope.

What can be done?

The EU’s toolbox to react in this conflict is very broad. The EU Commission has already applied for a daily financial penalty against Poland for failing to follow European Court of Justice orders and it has so far withheld the payment of Poland’s stake in the EU’s Covid-19 Recovery and Resilience Fund worth up to €57 billion.

While doing too little against the dangerous precedent that Poland sets with its behaviour may prove fatal for the EU, this doesn’t mean that taking a tough stance is without its risks. Two scenarios are imaginable.

If the Polish government manages to ‘sell’ the EU’s disciplinary measures as illegitimate interferences with Poland’s sovereignty, this may strengthen their position and bolster an anti-EU sentiment in the population. However, the Polish government may also end up in a difficult spot when Polish citizens realize that their country’s EU membership is risked for certain policies that their government would like to see through.

Does one scenario appear more likely than the other? Based on our limited data, the latter scenario seems more likely. Looking at the evolution of public opinion since the re-election of PiS in 2019, less and less Polish citizens seem to believe that the changes of their government are doing them any good – whether that is in terms of financial situation, personal outlook, or direction of their country (see figure 2). Why should they risk a break with the EU over changes they don’t even want?

To the contrary, considering their much higher regard for the standard of democracy in the EU (69% positive), they may in fact hope for a strong reaction from the EU. Right now, for Polish citizens, the prime function of the EU may well be to protect them from living in a country that drifts towards an anti-democratic authoritarian regime.