Poland’s rightwing prime minister has said he will go ahead with a referendum on EU migration reforms, in which voters will be asked if they are willing to accept “thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa”.
Mateusz Morawiecki announced in a video published online on Sunday that the referendum would coincide with a parliamentary election on 15 October. Migration and security will be central topics of the election, as Morawiecki’s ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS), seeks to retain power.
PiS’s campaign to lengthen its eight-year rule kicked off last Thursday when defence minister, Mariusz Błaszczak, announced on public radio that he was placing 10,000 troops “nearer to the border with Belarus to frighten the aggressor so that they do not dare to attack us”.
The announcement came after Belarusian military helicopters violated Polish airspace last week and Wagner group mercenaries set up camp in Belarus. Warsaw has interpreted these moves as a direct provocation, citing them as growing evidence of the threat Minsk poses to Poland and the EU.
Morawiecki’s government has long balked at EU plans to evenly distribute migrants among its members, sharing responsibility for people entering the bloc without authorisation. A deal was formally endorsed by EU interior ministers in June, despite some members’ objections, including, most noticeably, Hungary and Poland.
Morawiecki said the referendum would pose the specific question: “Do you support the admission of thousands of illegal immigrants from the Middle East and Africa under the forced relocation mechanism imposed by European bureaucracy?”
His video included scenes of street violence in western Europe, involving burning buildings and vehicles, in an allusion to recent riots in France. In one scene, a black man is seen licking a large knife. The pictures are accompanied by the voice of the PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, who asks: “Do you want this to happen in Poland as well? Do you want to stop being masters of your own country?”
PiS has drawn increasing attention to the rising numbers of African and Middle Eastern migrants entering Poland via Belarus, which is not an EU member and with which Poland shares a 400km-long border. So far this year, about 19,000 attempted crossings have been made, compared with 16,000 in the whole of 2022.
About 2,000 Polish soldiers and 5,000 border guards currently defend the border. Part of the frontier is protected by a 186km-long metal wall.
Poland has given refuge to more than 1 million Ukrainians, who are largely white and Christian. But for years – in particular during the height of the 2015 refugee crisis – political leaders have voiced their objection to hosting Muslims and other people from different cultures, arguing that they threaten the country’s cultural identity and security.
In the upcoming referendum, voters will also be asked other questions on other topics including whether they support an increase in the retirement age, which had been lowered to 60 for women and 65 for men, and the privatisation of state-owned enterprises. At a recent political rally in Chełm, close to the border with Ukraine, Kaczynski said that an EU-led privatisation of forests will prevent Poles from picking mushrooms, a popular national pastime. The height of the mushroom-picking season coincides with the date of the poll.
Kaczynski said: “We have this freedom. We can go mushroom picking … This is part of our freedom and we will not let this freedom be stolen from us.”
Political analysts have compared the Polish leader’s anti-EU rhetoric to the ‘take back control’ slogans used by pro-Brexit campaigners in the UK.
Kaczynski has also been dialling up the anti-German sentiment that his party has used to shore up its base since its foundation in 2001, along with topics including misogyny, homophobia, security fears and racism. He has said that Germany should be forced to pay Poland euro 1.3tn (£1.1tn) in reparations for Nazi war crimes during the second world war. Germany has rejected the demands.
Kaczynski has cited Poland’s devastating experiences of life under Nazi and Soviet-era rule as justification for Poles’ fears and demands.
He said at the rally in Chełm: “Do you know who has the biggest influence in Brussels? Exactly – Germany. And we would be forced to go from living under one boot from the east to another boot from the west.”