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Does Macron want the EU to punish Poland for its charity or its success?

As French voters go to the polls this weekend, citizens in Poland look on with concern. Emmanuel Macron, the Left’s presidential candidate, recently promised that if he wins the election, he will use EU structures to punish Poland for violating European “right and values.”  

“In the three months after my election, there are decisions that will be taken on Poland” by the EU, Macron said. “Sanctions will be taken over the lack of respect for the rights and values of the European Union.”

But what values did he mean, and how exactly is Poland violating them?

The hidden economic subtext

To understand Macron’s remarks, it is crucial to understand their context. The conference took place in a Whirlpool plant in Amiens just before it is relocated to Łódź in central Poland. Candidate Macron accused Poland and Hungary of “doing nothing” in face of the refugee crisis which threatens the Old Continent. It is clear that Macron intended his tough talk to raise his popularity among French workers. (Marine Le Pen has promised government intervention to support French industry.)  But Macron is a convinced Europhile, and his statement may contain a kernel of his foreign policy, as well.

Regardless of his motivation – political or ideological – it is worth noting what Poland is doing to help Syrian war victims – a program praised by Pope Francis. But first, it’s worth noting what Macron’s speech at Amiens hinted at: the economic roots of French-Polish animosity.

Thanks to the free movement of people and capital inside the EU, central European countries like Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary became competitive against countries like France and Italy due to lower costs of employing its workforce, lower taxation, well-educated professionals, and other resources. This led to the “problem” – as the French and Italians see it – of businesses relocating further to the East. According to Eurostat, as of December 2016, the unemployment rate in Poland was 5.9 percent, while in France it was 9.6 percent.

Instead of fighting against the real problems underlying this situation, both French presidential candidates opt for short-term interventionist policies and political sanctions against other countries that would keep businesses in France. 

Unfortunately, the victims of the Syrian war have been used by different politicians in Europe as a means to their political ends.

However, Macron’s remarks focused on the forced relocation Syrian refugees throughout the EU. Although the Poles never accepted the solution forced by Merkel and Hollande, they came up with another one, which seems to be at once cheaper, more ethical, and more effective.

Consulting the Syrians about their future

Since the beginning of the humanitarian crisis in Syria, EU leaders have adopted one of two different mindsets concerning how to help people in need. The first promotes the unlimited right to immigrate to Europe. The other would rather see Syrians affected by the war being assisted in their homeland or in the refugee camps in neighboring Lebanon and Jordan. The “welcoming attitude” strongly promoted by the most powerful politicians in Europe – like German Chancellor Angela Merkel or French president François Hollande, together with the EU itself – is costly, encourages people who are not in danger to risk their lives trying to reach Europe, increases insecurity inside Europe, and has further hollowed out the ancient Christian communities of Middle East – ironically aiding ISIS’s goal of making Christianity totally extinct in its cradle.

The Polish government has been skeptical towards the ideas of allowing people from Middle East to immigrate to Poland. Instead, both President Andrzej Duda, and Prime Minister Beata Szydło, declared several times that Poland is ready to offer the humanitarian aid on-site. This seems to be in line with both declarations of Christian church hierarchy from Syria. Patriarch John X, of the Orthodox Christian Patriarchate of Antioch, said last year during his meeting with the Polish president, “Christians, to survive, need help, on site, in the Middle East.” He said at the Syrian Embassy in Warsaw, “Both Muslims and Christians in Syria desire to stay in their homes and their homeland; they do not want to leave the country.” Similar words were spoken by Archbishop Jean-Clément Jeanbart, the Melkite Catholic archbishop of Aleppo, who said the West should “help [refugees] stay where they are, to have the bare necessities, but also to find peace.” Poles, and the world, were amazed by Rita Basmajian, a young Syrian participant of World Youth Day in Krakow last year who, during a short interview with the nationwide television network TVN, was asked how Poles can help people in Aleppo. She replied that Syrians in Europe want to return home, and all they needed was prayers. Her public statement that she, and her companions from Aleppo, wanted to come back home despite the war in Syria shocked a certain part of the society, which believed that what Syrians want most is to become refugees in Europe.

The Polish government refused to accept the relocation of the mostly Muslim immigrants streaming into western and southern European countries like Germany or Italy out of concern for the safety of Polish citizens. It has also rejected the idea of so-called “humanitarian corridors,” conceived in Italy by Comunità di Sant’Egidio and supported by more liberal Catholic media outlets and bishops. Instead Poland, led by the Law and Justice party, announced that it is planning to double annual spending on humanitarian aid for Middle East over last year.

Poland’s cheaper, more humane policy

At this point, the charitable organization Caritas Polska launched another program aiming to help the people in need in Middle East called Rodzina Rodzinie, which means “Family for Family” in Polish. Poles can adopt a Syrian family, pledging financial support for a certain period of time. This families belong to three groups: Syrian refugees in Lebanon, the Syrian population in Aleppo, and poor Lebanese whose living condition dramatically worsted due to the influx of the Syrian refugees. In order to donate, one is supposed to choose from the website a family and to declare the help which is most often 510 Zloty ($130 U.S.) a month for at least six months. Groups, parishes, companies etc. are also welcome to participate. For those who cannot make such a commitment it is also possible to make a single donation. The idea of this program was to create a bridge between Poles and Syrians who are exhausted of the war in their country, according to Fr. Marian Subocz, the president of Caritas Polska.

On April 23, which the Roman Catholic Church celebrated as Divine Mercy Sunday, an additional collection was taken in each parish in Poland after the Sunday Mass by the decision of Polish Catholic bishops.

The program has already won plaudits that anyone would covet – from the Holy See. During the April 23 Regina Caeli prayer in Vatican, Pope Francis commended the Rodzina Rodzinie program and thanked Caritas Polska for this initiative.

“I greet the Polish pilgrims and express heartfelt appreciation for the initiative of Caritas Poland in support of many families in Syria,” Pope Francis said.

"The programs aimed at integration failed completely. Therefore, we believe that this program is the best solution,” said Bishop Krzysztof Zadarko.

By any measure, Rodzina Rodzinie has been a success. Since the program began in late February, a total of 6,059 people have donated $2.4 million (U.S.). Over the course of five months, as many as 2,041 Syrian families were adopted, most of them inhabitants of Aleppo. By the beginning of March, some 11 bishops, 516 parishes, 47 religious congregations, and 470 priests had already provided material assistance. Later in March, Archbishop Stanisław Gądecki from Poznań, received from his diocesan priests a declaration of annual support of 25 families as a gift for the 25th anniversary of his episcopal ordination. As many as one-third of Aleppo’s Christians have received aid from the Rodzina Rodzinie program, according to Paweł Kęska, a Caritas Polska spokesman.

Muslim families in need are also included in the Christian program – which is often surprising to them.

The Rodzina Rodzinie program has one important facet some other humanitarian programs lack. It links families in need with their donors, so that the aid is not anonymous. One who donates gets to know the family that receives his money and is able to see the effects of his mercy. This shapes the way people think of the conflict in Syria. For them the victims of Syrian war are not only numbers, but they become real persons.

As importantly, this program promotes personal responsibility. Unlike the state-funded programs, Rodzina Rodzinie donors feel responsible for others and help them from their own means, completely voluntarily rather than through state compulsion. This is why this program can be called a true act of mercy.

The program is also cost efficient. For a relatively little amount of $130, it is possible to maintain a whole family for a month. In comparison, maintaining a family of refugees in Europe requires approximately $30,000 a year.

The program entirely eliminates the problem of assimilating refugees into foreign countries. “In all countries receiving refugees, the programs aimed at integration failed completely. Therefore, we believe that this program is the best solution,” said Bishop Krzysztof Zadarko, the Polish Episcopal Conference’s chairman of the council for migration, tourism, and pilgrimage.

The humanitarian crisis caused by the war in Syria is not one of the biggest concerns of European governments NGOs and societies. Sadly, the natural and human impulse to help the neighbor, if not addressed properly, can cause more damage than benefit. It is essential to plan a rational aid programs to avoid a list of possible negative consequence for both sides. Unfortunately, the victims of the Syrian war have been used by different politicians in Europe as a means to their political ends. It is important to take a step back and reexamine the real causes of the crisis, then look for an efficient solution. As to Emmanuel Macron, one popular French proverb of Turkish origin should be remembered: Les chiens aboient, la caravane passe (“The dogs bark, but the caravan goes on”).

 (Photo credit: Ecole polytechnique Université Paris-Saclay. This photo has been cropped. CC BY-SA 2.0.)


Marcin Rzegocki is a Ph.D. student at the Warsaw School of Economics.