How Poland can repair the damage to its arts and education systems

In a visit to Warsaw last year, one MEP was shocked to find culture and academia under threat. Will Donald Tusk be able to turn the tables?
The Zacheta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw | Adobe Stock Photo

By Michaela Šojdrová

Michaela Šojdrová (EPP, CZ) is the vice-chair of Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education

01 Mar 2024

In May of last year, the European Parliament’s Committee on Culture and Education (CULT) undertook a fact-finding mission to Poland with the aim of assessing a number of recent, worrying developments in the country's education, culture and media sectors.    

Our visit coincided with a parliamentary hearing on the situation in Poland, one that led MEPs to adopt a number of resolutions highlighting serious concerns about media freedom, censorship, academic freedom, and government control over arts and culture.  

We met with government officials during our visit and were shocked by statements they made on several occasions. Poland’s then education minister, Przemysław Czarnek, told us that academic research “polluted Poland's good name,” an assertion that demonstrates the harmful position of the Polish government on academic freedom and research independence all too well. We, for instance, raised the case of researcher Barbara Engelking, who saw public funding of her research discontinued after she said that Polish people could have done more to help Jews during the Second World War.   

The arts are uniquely vulnerable to political interference. 

We also met with local officials who shared our concerns. Tomasz Bratek, Warsaw’s deputy mayor, told us that the central government had attempted to put pressure on local governments through tax reforms and the strategic allocation of public funds. This had made it difficult for local governments, especially those led by opposition parties, to exercise their powers freely and meaningfully.   

There is a strong connection between cultural participation and civic engagement. As we approach the 2024 European elections, it is especially important to remember that arts and culture are essential to democracy because they allow different voices and perspectives to be heard and expressed. At the same time, the arts are uniquely vulnerable to political interference, as Poland has shown us.   

Education professionals we met in Lublin also urged the European Union to continue to support the Erasmus+ programme in Poland and expand its scope. The EU’s flagship student-exchange initiative plays a crucial role in developing open-minded and critically thinking young Poles and young Europeans more broadly.   

For almost a decade now, Poland’s political regime has violated core democratic principles and EU values, and sown deep divisions in society. Anyone who did not toe the Law and Justice (PiS) party line was seen to betray the Polish nation and to be in league with Russian president Vladimir Putin. I was really worried about Poland after our visit in May. Now, I believe, it has a chance to defeat populism and strengthen citizenship and democracy.  

That’s because, after nearly a decade in power, PiS suffered a major defeat at the polls last October. The new prime minister, Donald Tusk, is sure to face resistance from PiS loyalists strategically placed in the country's major museums, theatres and public media institutions by the previous government. Thankfully, the election also paved the way for Tusk, a former president of the European Council, to work with the EU to restore the diversity and vitality of Poland’s arts, culture and education systems, and to promote pluralism and dialogue in the media.  

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