The View of Britain from Europe: A Perspective from Lublin

Gerry Hassan

Scottish Review, March 21st 2018

Europe feels very different when viewed from its eastern borders. This week I have been travelling across Europe and staying for several days in the beautiful Polish city of Lublin – 95 miles from Warsaw, in the south-east of the country, not far from the Polish-Ukrainian border.

Lublin is a proud city with a rich history and sense of its past importance. It currently has a population of 349,103 and four universities, numerous colleges and lots of successful and impressive businesses and start-ups. It has also seen a lot of changes – with numerous different political masters down the years from being part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania to being under the authority of Austria-Hungary, then Russia, and occupied by Nazi Germany.

All of this has given the city a varied but sometimes painful history. On 7 November 1918 at the conclusion of the First World War as a separate Polish state re-emerged, Lublin was the site for Ignacy Daszyński establishing the Provisional Government for the People’s Republic of Poland.

The inter-war Polish state was recognised at Versailles but given a tragic hand by history, being sandwiched between the two rising tyrannies of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, who agreed to dismember the country in the infamous Molotov-Rippentrop Pact agreed on 23 August 1939. This pact was the basis for the Nazi invasion of Poland on 1 September, and hence the beginning of the Second World War, and on 17 September, the Soviet invasion.

The Nazi-Soviet pact was brutally torn up by the German invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941. At first this went well for the Germans, but the Soviets checked the Nazi advance at the gates of Moscow, and then slowly at first began turning back the invaders. By 1944 the Soviets had the upper hand and had driven the Nazis out of most Soviet territory and were advancing into Poland.

As the Soviets moved westward on 22 July 1944 they declared the Polish Committee of National Liberation. Two days after this they entered Lublin and based the committee there, leading to it being called the Lublin Committee. This was a momentous and sad moment for Polish independence, for this body was a Stalin-backed front to allow him to control the Polish Communists.

But if that weren’t enough, it also aimed to outflank and marginalise the Polish Home Army which had led the Warsaw uprising of 1944 and the Provisional Polish Government based in London – which had been the legal government until 1939. Stalin’s creation of the Lublin Committee was the death knell for independent political opinion in Poland and the groundwork for the post-war Communist dictatorship which followed.

Other shadows hang over Lublin. This is the city which became the headquarters of Operation Reinhard – the Nazi effort to exterminate all the Jews in Poland. It began on 17 March 1942, when a majority of Lublin’s Jewish ghetto, nearly 26,000 men, women and children, were forcibly deported to the nearby concentration camp, with few surviving. This harrowing experience is commemorated all over the city in statues and memorials, and in recent decades, the city’s tiny Jewish community has experienced some growth.

Modern day Lublin – a thriving, dynamic city and regional hub of energy and enterprise – has come a long way. But not everything is perfect or works for everyone – there are significant wealth and income inequalities, and the collapse of Communism has made some older people hanker after the security of the past.

Yet, the city has a marked mix of the old and the new. The central square, Lithuanian Square, is striking laid out, with a statue of Jozef Pilsudski, ‘First Marshall of Poland’, staring out at passers-by. The municipal authority and public bodies have embraced ‘Lublin 2050’, drawing on scenarios and foresight methodologies, working in partnership with a young energetic team – led by Justyna Krol – who know the problem of template regeneration.

Lublin is filled with new projects and initiatives sitting side-by-side with the old. There is the Centre for the Meeting of Cultures for example – which sat for years under Communism as an unfinished building known locally as the Theatre under Construction. One staff member told me that its name meant ‘we don’t have to explain our mission to anyone’. It now contains numerous galleries, studios, media labs, theatres (both adult and children), a kids play space, nightclub, bedrooms and a rooftop bee sanctuary. All in a city of 350,000.

Poland is in a very different place from the past. The country has been a democracy since 1989: the year the Polish Communists peacefully stood down from office after losing an election. The country is no longer a member of the Soviet bloc (which like the Soviet Union no longer exists), but a member of the European Union (EU) and NATO.

Yet, things are not quite as rosy as they once were in recent times. For the last two years Poland has been governed by the Law and Justice Party. Their growing authoritarianism, while popular with many Poles and in particular those who want to see traditional Polish values defended against the march of the West, has become increasingly contentious, and put the country on a crash course with the EU.

Tuesday this week was meant to be the day that the EU decided whether to punish Poland for government actions to weaken the powers of the independent judiciary and run roughshod over the constitution and rule of law. This would be a big moment for Poland, its future direction, and how the EU deals with and checks the growing populist authoritarianism sweeping the continent. As the day went on it became clear that the EU were hesitant about what to do and no announcement came forth, but there will only be so long that the EU institutions can push such fundamental issues into the long grass.

These are serious issues but to many in Britain they don’t seem to register too much. One British participant I met at an event in Lublin proudly declared that ‘it is nearly impossible to find out facts about Poland while living in Britain.’ Apart from the obvious fact that lots of Polish people live in the UK, the remark just reinforced the age old stereotype of the insular British who know little about their neighbours (and one reinforced by Brexit). And if that weren’t enough the same person went on to say: ‘I know only three things about Poland. It has good drink, good food and good looking women.’

Those ill-chosen remarks are not reciprocated by the conversations I have had in Lublin and elsewhere. Instead, people were eager to talk about Brexit, Euroscepticism, and what happens when the UK leaves the EU.

Some of this is a certain pan-European set of ruminations in small circles. Yet this week I have travelled and met people in Dusseldorf, Germany and Warsaw, as well as Lublin in Poland; and many wanted to talk about the state and future of Europe, with several raising these without any prompting. These weren’t just people at conferences, but in airport queues, hotel restaurants and cafes. There is at least a small European discussion going on about these big issues.

One major emerging theme was a dismay at what had created Brexit and where this elemental force of destruction will end up. Many people knew about the troubles of Theresa May’s Tory Government and the amateurish nature of the UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson. Several times I heard remarks such as ‘what is going on in England? and ‘where will England end up?’ Despite a couple of discussions about the component parts of the UK, it was clear in these observations, that by England people meant the UK.

People felt sadness that the UK was leaving and a sense of foreboding about where this would take the UK, and the effect it would have on British citizens. There was in a couple of my exchanges from people who weren’t political insiders, parts of the media or academia, an acute awareness that all was not right in the house of the UK. One said, with no prompting beyond knowing I was from Scotland, ‘you Scots want to be with us, so you will have your second referendum?’ Another knew all about the Irish border troubles stating: ‘Ireland has always been England’s shame’.

A further voice bemoaned the sense of British exceptionalism ‘Britain has never felt fully European the way we do’ and that ‘there is the whole island thing, thinking about the White Cliffs of Dover and seeing yourself as separate from us.’

These European voices cannot be confidently translated into the mood of an entire continent. But there is a prevalent feeling in places that the world is an argumentative, angry place and that the future is very uncertain. The extent of these worries cover so many issues: Brexit, the rise of Trump, what Putin is up, popular concerns over immigration, demographic pressures in Europe, and the forward march of right-wing populism.

None of us know how the future of Europe and liberal democracy across the continent will evolve, but in a small way I found the disparate voices and perspectives I encountered this week more uplifting than depressive. These are dangerous times and at least some of Europe’s citizens are engaged and knowledgeable, and prepared to reach out and talk about their concerns. That has to be a good thing, but European politicians need to start getting serious, recognise that they cannot take pro-European sentiment for granted and continue the limited elite democracy which passes for the way the EU works. Changing this will not be easy and will require hard work, different politicians and a very different politics, but perhaps above all, a different idea of Europe from the one which inspired the original signatures of the Treaty of Rome.