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Poles march for wage increases as rest of Europe tries to hold on to jobs

Poland didn't slide into recession like the rest of Europe, but even Poles have reported widespread economic dissatisfaction in this year's Transatlantic Trends survey.

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Protesters demonstrate on the final day of the four day protest against the government's economic policy in Warsaw, Poland, Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013. Thousands of Polish labor union members are marching through Warsaw to show the level of their discontent with the government's labor and wage policies.

Czarek Sokolowski/AP

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Poland was the only European country not to head into recession at the worst of the global crisis in 2009 – a so-called “island of green” in a continent of red.

While citizens in crisis-wracked economies from Portugal to Greece have marched against cutbacks in social spending and other enforced austerity measures by their governments, Poles have fared relatively well – and been quiet. So megamarches over the weekend that drew tens of thousands of Poles demanding a higher minimum wage and better job security do not fit into the European narrative of protest of recent years. 

But the marches this past weekend, calling for Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to resign, do fit into a larger trend that is captured in the release of today's Transatlantic Trends survey of the US and Europe by the German Marshall Fund of the US: dissatisfaction with government handling of the economy, underlined by a sense of injustice, and so bogged down by economic worries that they are turning inwards, especially when it comes to crisis in Syria.

“People are sick of the political class, sick of the banks, sick of the idea that some people are always getting protected and others are left behind,” says Gayle Allard, an economist at Instituto de Empresa Business School in Madrid.

The eurozone crisis explained in 5 simple graphs The eurozone crisis explained in 5 simple graphs
 

A majority of Europeans and Americans (65 and 75 percent respectively) say they have been personally affected by the economic crisis, with numbers rising most sharply in France – by 12 points, to 65 percent – and Poland – up seven points to 60 percent. The number who reported feeling dissatisfied with how their government is handling the economy grew 5 percentage points in Europe and 12 percentage points in the US, to 62 and 64 percent respectively. 

The increase was sharpest in France, up 17 points to 74 percent. It grew 10 points to 75 percent in Poland. An overwhelming majority in Europe, 82 percent, also say their economic system only benefits a few.

And appetite for intervention remains low, especially as the world considers a response to allegations of chemical warfare in Syria. Nearly three-quarters of those in Europe say they would not want to intervene there.

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“There is a decrease in approval for foreign policy initiatives,” says Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, the director of the Paris office of The German Marshall Fund of the US.

In France, despite President François Hollande's strong support for striking Syria as part of a US-led coalition, some 65 percent of French respondents said they would oppose intervention.

The survey captures the same mood in Europe and the US. “As in the US, people believe that we have been wasting money in Afghanistan,” for example, “with very poor results, when they feel this money could be used to reboot [the economy],” says Ms. de Hoop Scheffer.

President Hollande's popularity, which has sagged since his election, received a boost on his decision to intervene in Mali earlier this year, but that advantage disappeared quickly. The “strong president” persona in the face of domestic struggles has little weight, she says. “People want to see results on the domestic scene, the issues of every day French life.”

These same concerns are part of what drew people to the streets of Warsaw this weekend for Poland's largest strikes in recent years. On Saturday, men and women of all ages congregated in Krakowskie Przedmieście, a shopping district in Warsaw lined with cafes that feeds into the Old Town. They hailed from across the political spectrum, united only in their demand that things must get better.

Michal Baranowski, director of the Warsaw office of the German Marshall Fund of the US, says that while Poland has fared well through the eurocrisis, it has finally started to impact growth in Poland, and the end of the “green island” narrative has added to disappointment.

While Tusk's government, the only one to be re-elected since the fall of communism, has been cited as a success story, Poles feel "a lack of a sense of hope” and are now ready for a change, says Mr. Baranowski. 

"The prime minister can't communicate that there is anything particularly good around the corner," he says. 

According to the survey, 80 percent of Poles say their economic system benefits only a few, up from 72 percent in the 2012 report.

This perceived unfairness rose in every country surveyed, with highs of 93 percent, 92 percent, and 91 percent in Italy, Portugal, and Spain respectively.

Only 18 percent of Spaniards believe that the government is doing a good job handling the economy, by far the lowest number of all the countries surveyed.

One of the bigger spikes captured in the Transatlantic Trends this year was a sharp increase in disapproval of the US in Spain. While the country has a long history of weariness of the huge American global footprint, this year approval dropped 10 percentage points to 62 percent (compared to an EU average of 70 percent).

“Spaniards associate the US with conservatism,” says Ms. Allard. “The fact that Spain has suffered so much from this financial crisis, which their socialist government at the time said was started by the US, and now they are suffering under austerity from a conservative government,” she says, might have formed a causal association in citizens' minds between the US and their daily struggles.

The eurozone crisis explained in 5 simple graphs The eurozone crisis explained in 5 simple graphs
 

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