The upcoming German parliamentary election marks an end to 16 years in office for Angela Merkel. Still popular with the German public, she has been a leader whose diligent crisis management made her country a European power par excellence and an anchor of the European Union in difficult times – from the onset of the financial and eurozone crises in 2008, to Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and war in Donbas since then, to the migration crisis in 2015, to the disruption in the transatlantic relationship during the Trump administration and Brexit.
Europeans have often heavily criticised Merkel, but more of them now appreciate her leadership than dislike it. They value the ‘Empress of Europe’, as she is sometimes known, for her calm personal manner and rationality, and even the sober technocratic approach that underpins her ability to shape compromises. She will leave a gap that is difficult for any successor to fill.
Merkel’s departure from the chancellery is comparable to those of her predecessors Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl, who left office in 1963 and 1998 respectively. It poses challenges for her party, the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which faces multiple challenges related to the transition to new leadership. When Kohl left, it was a decade before the CDU regained power.
An important part of Merkel’s political legacy is her dedication to a unified Europe and the special attention she has paid to central and eastern European countries, particularly Poland. She often referred to her personal experience as a young chemistry student who visited Warsaw in the early 1980s and was impressed by the Solidarnosc movement, driven as it was by the ideas of freedom, justice, and human dignity. Merkel is probably the last of a generation of German leaders who have a personal relationship with their Polish neighbours and an in-depth understanding of Poland’s historical sensitivities.
In this, she has a markedly different background to the three main candidates for the chancellorship: the CDU’s Armin Laschet, the Greens’ Annalena Baerbock, and the Social Democratic Party’s (SPD’s) Olaf Scholz. Therefore, the election will bring about a new phase in the Polish-German relationship, one that is driven less by the still-vivid legacy of the past and more by pragmatism and interests. Laschet – who was long the frontrunner in opinion polls, and who has strong European credentials as a former MEP – visited Warsaw in summer. Polish leaders appreciated this gesture but, in general, neither he nor his two main rivals have a strong personal relationship with Poland.
History still plays an important role in the Polish public debate about cooperation with Germany. Calls for joint action are often overshadowed by a certain level of mistrust. At the same time, Germany is Poland’s biggest economic and trade partner, commercial relations between the countries are flourishing, and their bilateral dialogue is supported by well-established institutional structures (including those for student exchange programmes).
Aside from history, two main issues will be central to cooperation between Warsaw and Berlin in the post-Merkel era. The first is Russia, particularly as regards the geopolitical consequences of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline for Ukraine and the rest of central and eastern Europe. The second is climate and energy policy, an area in which Germany seems set on increasing its gas supply regardless of the broader security context.
If the SPD formed a government, its traditional approach of reaching out to Russia would swiftly increase tension between Berlin and Warsaw. The party’s eastern policy historically centres on realpolitik and a pragmatic approach that was shaped during the cold war, as well as on pro-Russian figures sometimes called ‘Russlandversteher’. Polish elites are concerned about the Kremlin’s strategy for reinstating the Russian sphere of influence – in which Belarus seems to be the next target, after Georgia and Ukraine. This has tended to fuel Poland’s suspicion of the SPD’s attempts to reset Russia policy and focus on economic relations, which are driven by the perception that Moscow is a reliable economic partner. If Scholz, who is currently the frontrunner in opinion polls, called for a new Ostpolitik based on that advocated by former chancellor Willy Brandt in the 1970s, many in Poland would immediately urge his party not to be naive.
In contrast, Baerbock has called for a hard line on Russia (as well as China). This approach would resonate with leaders in Warsaw – who, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, immediately mobilised their partners in eastern and central Europe by stating that could not be a return to normal relations with Moscow at the expense of Ukraine.
Merkel tried to assuage Warsaw’s fears about Nord Stream 2 but, ultimately, gave the green light to a gas pipeline that circumvents land routes via Ukraine and increases Europe’s dependence on Russian gas. Germany’s Energiewende (energy transformation) will lead it to phase out nuclear power by 2022 and coal by 2038. Under this plan, natural gas will play an important role as a transition fuel that maintains the competitiveness of German industry. As a result, the broader security considerations Poland emphasises are largely dwarfed by powerful German business lobbies.
The Greens have distanced themselves from Nord Stream 2, while the SPD stands firmly behind it. Accordingly, if the Greens are involved in the negotiations to form the next German government, this will be one of the most important climate and energy issues they will need to address. It touches on the core of Germany’s green transition.
Whoever wins the election, Germany will also have to reinvent its policies in several other key areas, ranging from digitalisation to the European Union’s financial structures (particularly with regard to deeper economic integration), the transatlantic relationship, and China policy. For instance, under the Biden administration, the United States expects Germany to take on a stronger leadership role in Europe. Simultaneously, many in the EU are afraid that they will be caught between sparring superpowers. Nonetheless, with energy and climate policy at the top of the next German chancellor’s agenda, the make-up of the ruling coalition will have a huge influence on Germany’s relationship with Poland and its other partners in central and eastern Europe.
Henryka Moscicka-Dendys is the director of the Bureau of Investments at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland and a former ambassador to Denmark. She is a Council Member of ECFR.
This commentary represents the author’s personal views.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.