Note to Berlin: How to engage Poland

If Germany wants to avoid further deterioration of its relationship with Poland, it is important to make clear that a discussion of the rule of law in their country is not a German-Polish affair and an illegitimate meddling in Polish affairs, but a legitimate part of a European public debate.

During the eurozone crisis, the relative isolation of Germany in Europe and the lack of understanding for its restrictive budgetary policies means that today Berlin very much appreciates any sign of support for its economic course. This appreciation has been no more apparent than in its good relations with Poland. Warsaw, partly out of conviction and partly through calculation, gave Germany’s leadership the benefit of the doubt and rhetorically supported its belt-tightening approach. Indeed, Berlin readily applied the example of the Polish transformation as evidence of the benefits of such policies.

Today, the refugee crisis has left Germany holding its hand out for European support, and the influx of millions of asylum-seekers has left the country up against the wall. Meanwhile, the lack of solidarity from EU partners, whatever their reasons, has meant that for the first time in history the Germans are left feeling that the European Union might be turning out to be useless, at least when it comes to solving the most serious problem it has faced in decades.

Poland’s anti-liberal drift in its domestic policies and its antagonistic foreign policy (mainly in terms of rhetoric) has complicated the federal government’s already difficult European situation, as it has the position of Chancellor Angela Merkel herself. A hitherto important European partner, Poland has now openly declared its mistrust of Berlin. In his interview with “Berliner Zeitung”, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski stated that “Germany cares more about Russia’s interests than the security of central and eastern European countries”, and made many other statements on the necessity of breaking off the “vassal” relationship with Germany.

The federal government has deliberately refrained from openly criticising the situation in Poland (unlike German politicians representing EU institutions, such as MEP Elmar Brok and Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, or Commissioner Günther Oettinger), no doubt out of the belief that this would only serve to further inflame the political conflict in Poland. However, this did not stop the Polish government from attributing these European reactions to German masterminds. An example of this is Minister Zbigniew Ziobro’s letter to Commissioner Oettinger, in which he linked the current criticism of Poland with Nazi crimes against thecountryduring the Second World War. While the German government, aware of the experience of the previous 2005-2007 Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość) government, wants to avoidanescalation of bilateral relations at any cost. However, at this stage, an aggravation of the dispute might just be unavoidable.

There are five factors motivating the Law and Justice government that Berlin should keep in mind:

First, emotions: The government in Warsaw is highly sensitive to any criticism or foreign reaction to changes in Poland. Such criticisms are interpreted as a result of open or concealed German pressure. The emotional factor plays a key role because anti-German sentiment is strong in the hard Law and Justice electorate, and its exploitation consolidates support for the government in this segment of voters.

Second, ideology: The Germans irritate some Poles and arouse opposition as perhaps the most perfect example of a liberal democracy. Germany is the closest, largest, most well-known, and almost text-book model of an individualistic and multicultural society – a system of values that Law and Justice rejects. However, despite the values of Law and Justice, this political and social model is attractive to a large section of Polish society, and the Polish government regards contemporary Germany as a cultural aggressor that it wants to push back – hence Witold Waszczykowski’s famous quote about cyclists and vegetarians.

Third, power: Poland’s antagonistic statements towards Germany reveal a strategy to build a Central-South Eastern bloc (the Intersea or Międzymorze), which could act as a counterbalance to the domination of Germany in Europe. Only then, as Law and Justice politicians like to say, will Poland be treated as a partner by Berlin and will be able to realise its own interests with greater ease. The belief that Poland overestimates the significance of its relationship with Germany provides an important basis for this strategy.

Fourth, leadership: The government’s approach to Germany is based on the calculation that Angela Merkel’s days as chancellor are numbered, and that there is no point in overemphasising her role. However, the party underestimates how strong Merkel’s position still is, both in society and in the party, despite the growing criticism of refugee policies. Law and Justice also fail to consider that if Merkel were to leave office, German politics might shift towards defending national interest, which could bring about mistrust of EU institutions and a less favourable view towards countries like Poland.

Fifth, interests: The new gas pipeline Nord Stream II, being planned by the Russian company Gazprom, is seen in Poland (far beyond the Law and Justice government) as a threat to the Polish interests and to EU energy security, as well as not  being in line with the EU legislation. Little credence has been given to the Federal Government’s argument that this is a business project by private companies which the government has nothing to do with. The support publicly given by Vice-Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel for Nord Stream II as well the experience with Nord Stream I under Gerhard Schroeder, gives reason to be cautious. German engagement for the strengthening of NATO’s eastern flank is also seen as insufficient in Poland. Here, the scepticism about Berlin’s position is shared by wider expert and political circles, not just Law and Justice supporters. Finally, the same is true for the refugee policy by Angela Merkel and her insistence to share the burden of this crisis with other countries.

If Germany wants to avoid further deterioration of its relationship with Poland, it is important to make clear that a discussion (including criticism) of the rule of law in their country is not a German-Polish affair and an illegitimate meddling in Polish affairs, but a legitimate part of a European public debate.

For such a message to be heard in Poland, Germans should respect the following four principles:

First, any pointed criticism from the outside (especially from Germany or by the Germans) – of the like of Martin Schulz’s “coup d’état” or “democracy on the Putin model” –is counterproductive and is very likely to backfire. Such exaggerated criticism also leaves the critics and the institutions they represent bereft of the credibility they need if they want to influence Poland. Ultimately, such criticism only strengthens those who have displayed immunity to it.

Second, criticism needs to differentiate. It is not a nuanced enough view to lump everything together, calling it a “danger to democracy”. To give an example: The new law on the functioning of the constitutional court is indeed an attack on the ability of this institution to work effectively and its independence, but the restructuring of public media – as controversial and as unfortunate it may be – is not of the same quality. Foreign correspondents in particular should refrain from making simple judgements.

Third, if one wants to maintain credibility as an outsider it is important not to glorify the past in order to make the current situation look even gloomier. Yes, there have been deficits in Poland over the past few years. These do not justify the course of the new Polish government, but they help explain the heated conflict within Polish society and the fact that the pendulum swings in a more extreme manner at the moment.

Fourth, it is short-sighted and with all respect, stupid, to conclude, given the current state of affairs, that Poland’s EU accession should never have happened in the first place. Poland might well be stuck in a post-transformation crisis, but thanks to the EU it has also actively seized opportunities for transformation and has been a stable and dependable EU member in Central and Eastern Europe for quite some time.

It is very much in the interest of an increasingly isolated Germany to have Poland return as a strong and stable EU member. Reviving the old dividing lines and making them look like new ones will mean that Germany further alienates Poland and pushes it away. Instead, Germany should continue to carefully support change that will help to steer the country in a direction that better serves the interests of its citizens. It is indisputable that a prolonged German-Polish spat would ultimately be a severe blow to the EU’s cohesion and the effectiveness of its foreign policy (especially towards Russia). It is remarkable that concerns about the deteriorating relationship between Berlin and Warsaw are voiced not only by champions of Polish-German reconciliation but more and more often also by realist foreign policy makers on the other side of the Atlantic.

Translation:  Emil Tchorek

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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