A Stigma of a Latecomer. In Conversation With Dr. Molly Krasnodębska

In this conversation with our editor, Katarzyna Krzyżanowska, Dr Molly Krasnodębska discusses her newest book “Politics of Stigmatization. Poland as a Latecomer in the European Union” (Palgrave Macmillan 2021). The interview touches on the political equality of Member States within the EU, the stigma of a latecomer applied to Poland (and other Eastern European countries), and the discursive hierarchy inside the EU.

Conversation was conducted on 4th of February, before Russia invaded Ukraine.

Katarzyna Krzyżanowska: I would like to start our conversation right away with the main problem that you raise in your book. One of your core arguments is that EU Member States do not have an equal say when it comes to determination of the goals of the EU foreign policy. There is a split between “Old Europe” and “New Europe”. Could you explain how this cultural division translates itself into this stigmatization discourse? What does this stigmatization discourse consist of?

Molly Krasnodębska: My book looks at how certain elements of discourse shape European politics. It is almost two decades since the Eastern enlargement and it doesn’t make much sense to still refer to the newer members which joined after 2004 as ‘new members’, as they have been part of the EU for some time. Nevertheless, a certain hierarchy still exists between the so-called established members, so the members which joined before 2004, and these “newer” member states. I also will refer to them for simplification as newer member states. I argue that these hierarchies impact European politics in the way that they affect who shapes a common foreign policy in the EU. 

This late-comer stigma is a perception or narrative that the newer member states have not fully reached the status as “full and established” members of Europe or the West as an imaginary community.

In my book I look at Poland and argue that it shapes Poland’s foreign policy since joining Western institutions, particularly NATO and the EU. The sources of this stigma are first of all this late membership status. As late joiners, these countries did not really participate in the creation of the EU institutions. They basically had to join a system that was already in place, and they had to adjust to something that was already there. 

The other thing is this stigma of communism. Having been part of the Eastern bloc as part of a division of Europe, the Eastern states have been cut off from the rest of Europe. Having experienced Soviet imperialism either as satellite states or actually being part of the Soviet Union, after 1944 they didn’t have sovereignty or only to a limited extent. They couldn’t really determine their own foreign policy until the fall of communism. This was another source of the stigma.

Stigmatization of Eastern Europe is something that has deeper historical roots. It goes all the way back at least to the Enlightenment as, for example, Larry Wolff, argues in his famous book “Inventing Eastern Europe”. For Poland this has been particularly significant from the time around the partitions where it lost sovereignty, its territory has been divided for over a century. Poland couldn’t take part in certain processes that shaped basically modern Europe and the modern international system. It had to catch up in a very limited period of time between the two World Wars and then was again subjected to territorial divisions and invasion. 

All this has shaped a certain ontological insecurity in relation to the West which plays such an important role in Poland’s perception of itself. I wouldn’t necessarily talk about cultural divisions between East and West because this can be misleading. The assumption that there are some essential or fundamental differences between the Eastern and Western European member states is in itself problematic because it’s essentialist. In terms of cultural traits, these countries share as much as they don’t have in common, like language or religion, for example. But what connects them is a certain common historical experience of the 20th century, particularly after 1945. This translates into some commonalities in their strategic cultures — certain fundamental ideas underlining security and assumptions about security.

A question that I really wanted to ask is the role of Habermas and Derrida in constructing public narratives of two Europes. You mention their article specifically on this issue in your book. It seems that it had a great impact on a broader European debate. Could you expand a bit on that?

The article did have a big impact during the Iraq crisis. It had a big impact because it both described a division that was already there and that created certain insecurities on both sides leading up to the Eastern enlargements of Europe. But it also created a narrative that lingered in the debate about European identity. The article talked about this avant-garde identity of Europe as a postmodern security actor, which was very much linked to an emancipation from the United States. The two philosophers criticized the US invasion of Iraq as being based on outdated visions of security that justify, for example, a preventative war, but they also criticized the EU candidate countries that supported the invasion. This article was later referenced by those that supported this narrative, but also by the politicians and public intellectuals of the “New Europe” defending their position. 

That’s why it had such a big impact  — because it really started this discourse. It gave it a name. Of course, the division between “Old Europe” and New Europe” wasn’t invented by these philosophers. It was Donald Rumsfeld who said it first, but it stuck around and acquired a different meaning than originally intended.

“Old Europe” in this discourse — at least how Habermas and Derrida used it — was a positive Europe, one that is established, that has moved on from the past, that has acquired a new identity. Countries of “New Europe” still have to undergo a certain process to evolve, to really become a part of the “real”, avant-garde Europe. 

The Iraq crisis was so significant, because it brought to light certain underlying issues connected to the upcoming enlargement. It revealed these differences in strategic cultures between the old and new members (then still candidate countries), but also brought to the surface certain anxieties concerning this upcoming enlargement, which happened just a year after this crisis. The newer member states were more traditional security actors. For these states it wasn’t so much about the US-led invasion itself but about showing that they are dedicated members of NATO, which they also had recently joined. There are many books about the Iraq crisis in the area of international relations and European studies, which talk about this aspect, i.e. the differences in strategic cultures. What my book, in particular, emphasises is that this crisis really established the discourse that subsequently shaped the relations between these countries and the rest of Europe. I also argue that it had an impact on Poland’s foreign policy, because it showed that simply becoming a member of the EU and of NATO, in itself was not enough to achieve this status as a “full member”, to basically cancel its status as “outsider”. A lot of Poland’s foreign policy was later focused on overcoming this discourse. 

We are now opening a new thread. You mentioned Iraq, and this is precisely what I wanted to ask you about now. As you argue, the stigmatization discourse forces the stigmatized to embrace two strategies: either it contests its stigma, or it tries to adapt to those Goffmanian “normals”. Since you mostly focus on the Polish case, could you briefly explain how this two strategies played out in Poland’s foreign policy between exactly these years that you elaborate on, 2003 -2014? In other words, in which cases Poland embraced its stigma and when it rebelled against it?

I wouldn’t say that Poland embraced the stigma. Actually, all the foreign policy approaches that I look at are aimed at overcoming this latecomer status which was the source of Poland’s stigma and its insecurity in relation to the West. Rather, it’s been alternating between two approaches of dealing with stigma. I refer to these approaches as contestation and adaptation. Contestation is an attempt to challenge the discourse that constructed this stigma in the first place. The best example is the Iraq crisis. Poland and the other new members signed the letter supporting the US invasion and then later Polish leaders claimed that Germany and France do not have the right to dictate the county’s foreign policy choices. This open disagreements with Paris and Berlin became about more than just the Iraq War – they became about a right to determine its foreign policy position while on the verge of EU membership. It became about challenging this idea that these countries should accept a second-class status. Or that’s what they perceived is expected of them. 

In the case of adaptation, it is an approach that focuses on overcoming stigma by meeting expectations. An example would be the Ukraine crisis [in 2013/14], especially Poland’s Eastern policy leading up to the crisis. Going back a little bit, Poland was criticized for its Eastern policy that was perceived as very confrontational and provocative towards Russia, especially under the first PiS [Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, Law and Justice party] government between 2005 and 2007. When the new government came to power under Prime Minister Donald Tusk, the strategy was to change the Eastern policy and to pursue a foreign policy of rapprochement with Russia to improve their relations. They, for example, abandoned, the idea of EU membership for Ukraine in the future. Tusk’s government together with Sweden and older member states proposed the Eastern partnership instead, which offered a lighter form of association with the Eastern partners than membership. This foreign policy then continued through to the Ukraine crisis. It was very much focused on acting together with the EU and avoiding the perception of Poland as a difficult partner. It did receive a lot of international praise initially, but when the security situation escalated, Poland didn’t really play a decisive role anymore in resolving the security situation. It was other members that took over (i.e. Germany and France). I should add, the EU itself also ceased to play an important role after the annexation of Crimea. 

There are many phrases that are important here and we will come back to them later on in our conversation. Now I wanted to ask about the general international response to Poland’s actions. What are the consequences of rebelling against this stigma or trying to confront it? Which strategy proved to be more efficient in changing the underlying hierarchies within the EU? Which proved to be more successful for the Polish leadership role in Eastern Europe?

The problem with responding to stigmatization is that responses by nature are reactive to the stigma. It is always problematic for the subject.

Stigma really creates a vicious circle for the relationship between the subject and the Goffmanian normals. Contestation is a response where an actor tries to directly tackle the stigma. It leads to a situation that is confrontational with the community of normals.

Because of that, it affirms negative expectations about the actor and often leads to more stigmatization, negative labelling and further exclusion. However, contestation definitely gives the actor more agency. That was also the case of Poland. But even in cases where it was the right approach, it didn’t create the lasting change because it didn’t receive enough support. I’m specifically referring to the Russo-Georgian war, when Poland together with the Baltic States and Ukraine pursued a parallel approach to the French President who represented the EU – France held the EU Council presidency at the time. This parallel initiative was aimed at forcing the EU to stand up more to Russia and to take a harder stance in response to the war rather than mediating approach that Sarkozy wanted to take at the time. But like I said, it didn’t really create a lasting change and maybe if it had, if the position of the newer member states had been seriously taken into account at the time, maybe it wouldn’t have the security situation that we are faced with now. 

Adaptation, on the other hand, certainly improved Poland’s image as a good European and as a reliable partner. But I don’t think it eventually led Poland to have the leadership role that the government had hoped for. This is because through adaptation the subject risks to become more trapped in a hierarchical relationship; all actions are aimed at disproving the stigma, at meeting expectations. It doesn’t give much agency, it doesn’t lead to emancipation.

I was taken aback by what you referred to in the book — I mean here the words by Jacques Chirac who said during the Iraq War that the Eastern European states missed a chance to stay silent. I wanted now to touch upon the ongoing debate on democratic backsliding. Some would perceive it as stigmatizing Poland, especially in the context of the Polish reforms within the judiciary. Can I ask you if would classify this narrative as a stigmatization, a bashing?

Yes, I would. On the one hand, there are controversies regarding, for example, whether the judiciary reform complies with EU law, or debates regarding the rule of law controversies, or more recently, the question if EU law has precedence over national constitutions of member states. All these are debates and arguments that can be expected with European integration. On the other hand, however, the way that this dispute is taking place goes beyond the subject matter, which is a legal one, but it is a political debate about the power relations within the EU. Because of that I would classify it as very similar to the debates on foreign policy that I describe in my book. 

For Poland it has really become about national sovereignty. For the Commission it has become about its power in relation to the member states. This is also one of the reasons why this dispute has become so difficult to resolve and to find compromises. The entire dispute is for the most part taking place in this verbal space of public legal discourse. But if the threat of economic sanctions that is often talked about, if Poland doesn’t comply, were to materialize, it would also be a different form of stigmatization through exclusion or financial punishment. It would have a new form. In general, apart from this example, this kind of verbal stigmatizing has started to play a greater role in politics and it has also probably to do with the changing media landscape.

You mentioned also in one of your previous responses the vicious circle that Eastern states start to respond to the stigma and attack the stigmatizer. In parallel to the stigmatization of Poland by the EU institutions, we can observe a similar bashing of the EU institutions — for example the Commission — by the Polish officials. How could we make this vicious circle of stigmatization stop?

I should clarify the difference between stigmatization and stigma. Stigmatization is a political tool or a discourse tool of creating labels and verbal shaming. As a tool of conducting politics it can be successful or unsuccessful. But stigma is a little bit different in the sense that it is a label that sticks, you may say. It is one that is significant enough that it really becomes part or affects the particular actor’s identity and its relation to the community of reference. As I try to show in the book, the problem of Poland’s ontological insecurity that is connected to its stigma as a latecomer, is something that is quite fundamental, that shapes its strategic culture. Strategic culture as a concept refers to fundamental ideas about security and the actor’s place in the international environment. These ideas have outlasted often generations of policy makers, which does not mean that strategic cultures cannot evolve and cannot change over time. 

I see that Poland’s quest of recognition and overcoming the ontological insecurity in relation to the West is based on its historical experience. It is a kind of existential problem in the case of Poland and other Central-Eastern European countries that share similar historical experiences (with certain differences between them). I would refrain from using this analysis to give policy advice but rather I tried to show some underlying mechanisms that affect how politics happens on the European continent between European states.

Is any difference between the “new member states” with regard to the stigmatization mechanisms? Do you see any differences among the Central-Eastern European countries?

There are definitely a lot of differences. Like I said before, I wouldn’t treat them in any way as a unified block or emphasize only the similarities. The similarities that they do share are historical experiences which influences strategic culture including views of security policy, also other aspects, such as the emphasis on national sovereignty. This was displayed in the reaction of the Visegrad countries the during the migration crisis. They understood that the EU migration scheme was imposed on them — that’s why they contested it. 

But there are also some very significant differences: culturally, with regard to their position as international actors and main references points within Europe (e.g. the Baltic States which certainly have a more Nordic reference point). All these things affect foreign policies. 

The additional aspect of experiencing stigma is the criterium of the size of the state. Poland, a medium sized state, expects to have a certain role in shaping the EU’s foreign policy.

We know from other examples that small states tend to be more comfortable being part of alliances without striving for a  leadership role as medium sized states do. In the crisis around the Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian border, we see differences in relations with Russia, between Poland and the Baltics on one hand, and, for example, Hungary which has a more positive relationship with Russia on the other.

What are the differences between the Eastern-European States and the Southern Europe? Does this discourse of stigmatization also appear in the case of the South of Europe?

I would definitely say so. There are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between the Eurozone crisis, the Iraq crisis or the Georgia crisis. You could see a certain dividing discourse between the East and the West in the one case, and between the North and South in the other case. But there were also some differences in the case of the Southern European states. Their stigma was primarily constructed around economic issues. It wasn’t for example linked to the authoritarian past of countries, such as Greece. It was a little bit milder as a stigma. I don’t think that the European identity of these countries was really questioned. There was rather an emphasis that there couldn’t be an EU without these states, even coming from media or public intellectuals in the North. 

One of the reasons is of course that in the Eurozone crisis there was really a lot at stake for the North. There was a real threat of the Eurozone falling apart and that would have had real and dire consequences, also for countries like Germany.

There were strong incentives to resolve this conflict despite stigmatizing discourse and the verbal bashing. There had not been a comparable case with regard to the Central European member states.

I wanted to talk about the possibilities of overcoming this stigma. You mentioned this problem in your book briefly. Do you believe that the stigma of a latecomer to the EU can be ever overcome? Or, in other words, do you can observe any counter-narratives within the EU that construct Poland as a reliable partner in the EU relations? 

I talk about overcoming stigma only very briefly at the end of my book. But I have considered this question a lot – both on a theoretical and empirical level. I have to say, I have not quite worked out what overcoming stigma really means in a theoretical sense. That is because I found it a bit hard to actually find a positive or fitting empirical instance. To give you an example: Germany is often cited as a case of successfully overcoming a stigma from its WW II past and now being the example of democracy and promoter of peace. But when you look at Germany’s foreign policy, it is focused in a lot of ways on these expiation rituals –  at symbolically reliving this stigma. When you look at its relationship with Israel, it’s reiterating this stigma and dealing with it over again, also in the relationship with Poland. I am not saying that the Germany’s stigma of a perpetrator is in any way comparable to the latecomer stigma – that is a different kind of stigma  – I am merely comparing the process of overcoming. There is always the threat that the stigma can reemerge. We just talked about Greece and there also immediately the issue of reparations came up. I wonder, for example, in the case of Germany, it is not just the case of successfully dealing with the stigma and turning it into something positive rather than really overcoming it. 

Going back to the latecomer states, what I try to show in my book is that these stigmatization discourses take on new forms and new shapes but continue to exist. They are certainly not overcome by just time, as might has been expected when the states first joined Western institutions. ‘Ok, now we are newcomers, but in 10 years we won’t be’ — that didn’t turn out to be true. There is always this threat that they would be labelled again if they deviate from certain decisions of “core” member states. What does change, however –I think that is rather the key to overcoming the stigma — is that stigma is always in relation to the so-called normals. These normals are not in a vacuum. They themselves evolve and change over time. With that, also the relationship between the stigmatized and the stigmatizing changes as well.  

In the EU and in the West we do see a lot of changes on very different levels. Like I have argued, Poland’s latecomer status is always associated with wanting to be recognized as Western, as European, but what Western and European means has undergone a lot of changes since Poland joined the Western institutions. First of all, the EU is no longer this avant-garde Europe that it used to be. If it ever was that. It was rather an idea that never materialized, because in the area of security it is moving to become a more traditional security actor, starting with the beginning of the Ukraine crisis in 2014. Brexit has challenged the idea of an ever-closer union, that there is only one way forward. It has actually shown that there are reverse mechanisms as well. This has created a lot of insecurities within the EU, and it automatically changed Poland’s relationship to it. Some of these changes are positive for Poland, some are also very negative, but they definitely change the relationship. 

When it comes to foreign policy – because you asked about the other narratives constructing Poland as a reliable partner – there are currently no such fundamental points of contention. I think this is largely a result of the fact that Europe’s foreign policy towards Russia has changed a lot. Of course, Poland’s foreign has changed as well: it is more interested in the idea of a European security cooperation. But the stigmatizing discourse has moved to the other areas: for example, to the problems with the judicial reforms.

These geopolitical challenges might bring more opportunities for the Eastern states. How would you apply your findings to explain the recent migration and humanitarian crisis on the border with Belarus and the ongoing crisis on the Russo-Ukrainian border?

It is interesting that you say that they bring opportunities because in general the reason why my book also looks at crises is because crises do change relationships a lot. They can be turning points. It’s true that a crisis was always seen as an opportunity to change something and that’s why I have looked at them – I should have maybe said this at the beginning. 

With regard to the current crisis [caused by the Russian military buildup around Ukraine’s borders], you can see that it is very different from the previous crises. There are not these certain essential differences regarding foreign policy. For example, how to deal with Russia is no longer a fundamental controversy. There is mainly unity in regard to this, even if you have states that want to pursue a slightly different approach because they have strong economic interests in maintaining good relations with Russia. But generally, it has rather become source of stigmatization when a country tries to have a positive relationship with Russia or is considered pro-Russian. That has become something negative that used to be very different. Poland’s approach to Russia is no longer a source of verbal scolding. But this unity is not necessarily a positive thing because it happens in a situation of very deep insecurity and actual threats in Europe that no one would have really imagined in 2008 when the Russo-Georgian war started. Actually, not no one because the Baltics and Poland always emphasized this possibility. In a way their greatest security nightmare had been exactly that. However, it was not accepted as a main position of the EU. This has changed now, mainly because of what is happening. Also, the US is very strongly involved in Europe’s security. [And this is no longer contested].

Now, similarly with the crisis at the Polish-Belarusian border [in late 2021]. This is also interesting because generally Poland’s approach, which is obviously at the frontline of this, is supported by the EU and other member states. In November, the EU mandated a sanctions regime in response to the situation at the Belarussian border. I wrote down a quote, it was done to “respond to the instrumentalization of human beings carried out by the Belarussian regime for political purposes.” So currently Poland’s policy is backed by the EU and by NATO. There was some criticism of the humanitarian situation by NGO’s and certain media outlets but it has never really materialized as a dominant discourse which is very different from the migration crisis in 2015. The reason for this difference is that it is a very different kind of migration crisis. It is artificially constructed by a hostile state. But also, the EU’s migration policy has changed a lot since 2015. There is now more talk even in the “old” European countries about the fortification of European borders. So, all these changes also affect Poland’s role as a security actor.

Disclaimer: Dr Molly Krasnodębska presented her own opinions that should not be treated as representing the viewpoint of the Republic of Poland.

Dr Molly Krasnodębska — international relations scholar, currently the Head of the Political and Economical Department in the Polish Embassy in Iceland.

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

In collaboration with Isabel Lasch, Karen Culver

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