Welcome to weird politics

Observations on Poland

As the politics of faith tussle with secular politics in western Europe, so it is becoming harder to separate the two in the east. Poland may have lost its pope, but it has gained a governing coalition whose leaders use the most worrying language about gay people, women, liberal values, Germans and the EU.

While the left was thrashed in the elections last autumn, the main conservative, Europe-friendly, pro-business party, the Civic Platform, was also marginalised, and the new government has cut deals with the kind of parties with which William Hague is hoping to build a new anti-EU coalition.

Chief among these is the League of Polish Families, whose members love dressing up as skinheads under the slogan "Gays to the gas chambers". The party is supported by the wide-reaching Catholic radio station Radio Maryja, with its unpleasant mixture of anti-Semitic, anti-abortion and anti-German propaganda.

The dominant Law and Justice Party steers clear of this language, but the tone of the Kaczynski twins who run it - one is president - is unmistakably nationalistic and, despite overtures from the new German chancellor, Angela Merkel, hostile towards Germany.

Also in the mix is the peasants' party Self-Defence, headed by Andrzej Lepper, a man who admires the way Hitler got Germany "back on its feet" and regards the Austrian Jorg Haider and the Belarus despot Alexander Lukashenko as admirable Europeans. In the past, party militants have shaved stars of David into the heads of opponents they have roughed up.

What unites this crew is hostility to the EU; indeed, many Poles now feel sore about the budget deal, which they saw as wealthy, greedy Britain refusing to share its rebate with Poland.

A government minister recently sent a shiver through the global investment community by saying that Tesco was not welcome as an inward investor. Objections were then raised to an important bank takeover because the new owners were not Polish. Given that Poland's chief policy goal is to open Europe's labour market to Polish workers and to persuade the United States to allow Poles to travel there visa-free, these are strange signals to send.

But now the lurch to anti-European religious rightist politics faces opposition from an unlikely source. The new pope, the Bavarian Benedict XVI, has made clear he wants to see the Church in Poland staying away from political activities. And the former pope's key aide, Archbishop Stanislaw Dziwisz, now in effect the leader of the Polish Catholic Church, has pointedly attended a Jewish commemoration and attacked anti-Semitism, cutting ground away from Radio Maryja.

Poland these days is a country of style, hard work and confidence. It has survived exotic and eccentric politics in the past, and the new politicians will be shaped by their country rather than the other way round.

Britain, despite the poor political handling of the budget row, remains Poland's best friend in the EU. While the Tories court partners for "William's weirdos", as the Hague brigade of anti-EU parties is being called, Labour needs a strategy of contacts and co-operation with the new government in Warsaw.