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Sussex professor briefs UK government officials on Covid-19’s impact on Polish politics

Aleks Szczerbiak Professor of Politics and Contemporary European Studies.

Sussex Politics Professor Aleks Szczerbiak has briefed 120 UK government officials about the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on the current political situation in Poland.

Those present on Friday 29 May at the online ‘Masterclass’ organised by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) included the UK’s Ambassadors to Poland, Hungary and Slovakia together with representatives from 15 other government departments, including the Cabinet Office, and other UK diplomatic posts around Europe.

The Masterclass was one of a series organised by the FCO’s European Research Group, which is headed up by Sussex alumnus Professor Nat Copsey. Prof Copsey completed his PhD at Sussex in 2004 supervised by Prof Szczerbiak and Professor Alan Mayhew, and went on to initially pursue a successful academic career before switching to the diplomatic service.

The Masterclass was originally intended to brief UK officials on the impact of the Polish presidential election, scheduled originally for 10 May. However, the focus of the session was broadened to include a wider discussion of the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic crisis on politics in Poland and the Central and East European region more generally.

Poland has attracted a great deal of international interest as a result of its plans to go ahead with a presidential election in May in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic. At the Masterclass, Prof Szczerbiak explained how the election is a crucial one because the ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party lacks a three-fifths parliamentary majority to over-turn a presidential veto. If the Law and Justice-backed incumbent Andrzej Duda were to lose, this could precipitate a political crisis and early legislative elections.

During the last five years, Poland’s ruling right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party has pursued a controversial programme of radical state reconstruction which its opponents describe as undermining democracy and the rule of law. Its supporters, however, insist the reforms are necessary to restore pluralism and balance to institutions which they say had been expropriated by well-entrenched post-communist elites. In the event, the presidential election was postponed due a split in the ruling party and will now be held on June 28th.

Prof Szczerbiak, who was Director of the Sussex European Institute from 2006-14, researches contemporary Polish politics and is currently writing a monograph on the impact of the Catholic Church and religion on the country’s post-communist party politics. He also publishes a research blog where he regularly comments on current Polish political developments from an academic perspective.

In the last few weeks Prof Szczerbiak has given numerous interviews on the impact of the Covid-19 crisis on Polish politics to European media outlets including: Radio France International, Germany’s ‘Deutsche Welle’, the Danish Jyllands-Posten and Information newspapers, together with an in-depth profile piece for IQ magazine, Lithuania’s equivalent of the Economist.

In the past, he has advised the UK Embassy in Poland, the Polish Embassy in the UK and the Parliamentary All-Party Group on Poland on how to develop and improve British-Polish relations. In March, Prof Szczerbiak was a keynote speaker at the annual Belvedere Polish-British Forum, the main initiative sponsored by the UK and Polish governments to broaden and deepen civil society contacts between the two countries.

Commenting on the FCO Masterclass, Prof Szczerbiak said: "It was great to see such a lot interest in the current Polish political situation from such a wide and diverse range of UK government officials, and the questions and discussion were really excellent.

"There are clearly pros and cons to having an online format to these events. With such a large audience you do lose a lot of the interactive element and miss out on the valuable informal ‘side’ discussions and conversations. But these kind of 'virtual' events do make it much easier for many officials to participate who would not normally be able to do so, particularly more senior ones with packed diaries."

Prof Szczerbiak is scheduled to do a follow-up Masterclass session after the re-scheduled presidential election finally takes place.

Posted on behalf of: Politics department
Last updated: Thursday, 11 June 2020