German election: An opening for Poland?

It is Warsaw who must make the first move if they are to repair German-Polish relations in this decisive moment for Europe.

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The make-up of the German government is of great interest in Poland. The SPD, Angela’s Merkel’s coalition partners for the past four years, have shown significant understanding for Russia and have been vocal in denouncing the illiberal course of Warsaw’s Law and Justice party. Party leader Jarosław Kaczyński will likely be hoping that the SPD will now make way for the Liberals and Greens.

But ultimately, whether Martin Schulz is replaced by Greens party leader Cem Özdemir and his liberal counterpart Christian Lindner is of limited importance. Poland’s long-term interests depend much more on the new realignment of Europe as a whole, and on Poland’s own course of action with regards to the rule of law and relations with Germany, than on the distribution of posts in the new Merkel Cabinet.

In the following months, we will witness intense debates about the future of Europe, concerning budgets and governance of the eurozone, migration policy, defence integration and much more. And while a prospective Jamaica coalition may have limited appetite for Macrons excessive visions, Berlin will not be able to ignore wider calls for reform.

For Warsaw there is much at stake: it fears being marginalised in a ‘Europe of different speeds’, and wants a more muscular Russia policy and tighter borders. But EU integration has been a blessing for Poland. If this is to continue, Warsaw will need to re-define its interests, make necessary compromises, and cooperate with Germany in particular to shape the direction Europe takes over the coming years.

Sadly, there are many indications that we are currently a long way from this kind of cooperation. Rather than dialogue over upcoming EU reforms, arguments over second world war reparations currently dominate relations between Berlin and Warsaw. And there was visible schadenfreude in Poland about Merkel’s poor electoral performance, despite the fact that she is widely considered the best choice for Poland.

With the entry of the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) into the German parliament, PiS friendly media have proclaimed the “true beginning of democracy” in Germany and warned Berlin against excluding or ignoring the insurgent party.  Among the Polish political elite, an alternative rationality seems to have settled in, with ideological prejudices preventing the constructive dialogue which is so badly needed.

Merkels weakened position inside her own government, caused by the complicated coalition system, will likely provoke an aggravation of the policy towards Warsaw instead of more tolerance. Indeed, with regard to the rule of law, the tables seem to have already turned. Having previously taken the position that open criticism or harassment of Poland would be counter-productive for EU stability, Germany's political elite now seems to think that not reacting will be more damaging for the EU than a sharpened confrontation with Warsaw. Recent developments in Brussels and Berlin on asylum policy also point the wrong way for Warsaw, with those who refuse to accept refugees expected to face financial consequences.

From a Polish perspective, “Jamaica” may be a dream come true: The Greens should take care of a reasonable Russia policy and the liberals will oppose the reconstruction of the eurozone by the French. But it is Warsaw who must make the first move if they are to repair German-Polish relations in this decisive moment for Europe. Equally, Berlin would do well to keep its cool and distinguish between recent frictions and strategic interests. In the long run there is little to gain in widening the current schism, and much to lose. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Warsaw
Senior Policy Fellow

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