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22nd of October 2018

Economy



Polish liberal mayor seeks to lead resistance against Eurosceptics

Near Poland’s Baltic coast, a 42-year-old gay politician has turned a small town into a platform to defy the country’s dominant Law and Justice party. Now, Robert Biedron is poised to bring the fight on to the national and European stages — one of a generation of pro-EU politicians attempting to push back against mounting rightwing nationalism in the region.

Last month, the leftwing mayor of Slupsk — whom polls rank as one of Poland’s most trusted politicians — announced that he would found a new progressive party. His main target is Polish parliamentary elections next autumn. But his party will make its debut in European elections next spring, in which pro-EU groupings like his will face off against the continent’s emboldened Eurosceptic forces.

An unabashed atheist in what remains a largely conservative Catholic country, Mr Biedron says he will run an “open, progressive, pro-European” campaign. Poland’s only openly gay mayor espouses gender equality, civic partnerships and a loosening of Poland’s strict abortion laws— ideas that run counter to the values of many of the resurgent nationalist, Eurosceptic parties seeking to secure big gains at EU parliamentary elections in May.

“[Poland has] to decide: either we will be in the core leadership of the EU or we will join the east and start our course towards Belarus and Russia,” Mr Biedron told the Financial Times in the former Hanseatic trading town of 100,000 inhabitants. “I am afraid that the ruling party is pushing us to go east, which I disagree with.”

“Poland has to play a critical role in the debate on the future of the EU, which was not the case until now,” he added. “I’m afraid that Poland now and in recent years has not been able to create a vision of the EU we want to be in, a vision of Poland within the EU, a vision of our role within the EU, what Poland is to give, and how it is to act within EU structures.”

At home, Mr Biedron wants to revive a moribund left by winning over voters who back the ruling Law and Justice party’s generous social spending but dislike its intolerance of dissent and its assault on the rule of law, which have triggered an unprecedented stand-off between Warsaw and Brussels.

“We will leave what good has been done by Law and Justice. But we will give you back freedoms,” said Mr Biedron.

The atypical Polish politician has several assets, including his record as mayor. He has cut Slupsk’s debt and won support for introducing environmental measures and initiatives to increase transparency. One survey put him third in Poland’s 2020 presidential race, and polls have given his putative party support of between 5 and 10 per cent — even though it has yet to pick a name or a precise programme.

I was so disappointed that we did not create any leadership on any EU policies. I want Poland to be a strong leader among strong EU leaders

Amid rising anti-migrant sentiment in the country, Mr Biedron preaches openness. Outside his office in the imposing red-brick neo-Gothic style city hall, a series of posters from an Amnesty International campaign urge the Polish government to accept refugees.

But the question is whether he can transfer his success in left-leaning Slupsk, where his liberalism is popular and his private life is not an obstacle, to Poland’s national politics, where more traditional, conservative values, underpinned by the influence of the Catholic church, hold considerable sway.

Mr Biedron batted away such concerns, arguing that Polish citizens were more socially liberal than the country’s current crop of politicians suggested. “I have been asked [this] throughout my career,” the one-time MP said. ‘Will you be a mayor of this city?’ . . . I became a mayor . . . I am still going against the stream, and winning. Why should I stop?”

Some Polish media have drawn hopeful comparisons between Mr Biedron and Emmanuel Macron, France’s youthful president who rose to power with a grassroots pro-EU party in 2017. There has also been speculation that Mr Biedron could strike an alliance with Mr Macron in next year’s European elections.

Mr Biedron, who also has links to Europe’s Social Democrats, said he was keeping his options open. “We as pro-European politicians should co-operate with everyone who is thinking about the future of Europe and not destroying Europe,” he said.

“What is our idea for EU policies? I was so disappointed that we did not create any leadership on any EU policies,” he added. “I want Poland to be a strong leader among strong EU leaders.”

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Mr Biedron is keen to look across the political divide, stressing that lessons needed to be drawn not just from Mr Macron but also from the successes of Law and Justice’s leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and even President Donald Trump of the US to address voters’ anxiety.

“Why did they win? They won because people are disappointed in the traditional . . . media [and] politicians, who seem not to understand that people disagree with what they are doing, that they are left behind and nobody cares. They are frustrated,” he said.

Critics in Poland say Mr Biedron’s new party risks further fragmenting the country’s left, and could even lead to a repeat of 2015, when no leftwing party made it into parliament, allowing Law and Justice and its allies to win a majority.

But the politician brushed off the criticism, insisting that Poles deserved the option of a modern, progressive party.

“You can see that the opposition has a glass ceiling,” he said. “I want to create an alternative for people . . . [so] that we also have progressive politics in Poland. Poland deserves it, it’s 2018. Come on.”

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