Angela Merkel’s visit to Warsaw this week sparked an interest unmatched by any international event in Poland in recent years, except perhaps NATO’s summit here last year. Media supportive of the ruling national-conservative government celebrated her meeting with Jarosław Kaczynski, the informal party leader, as a symbolic appreciation of a Poland which in the European Union has recently been viewed as a pariah. Others went so far as to interpret the meeting as a possible precursor to new Warsaw-Berlin cooperation based – finally! – on genuine, and not feigned, partnership.
There must be something amiss in relations between two close neighbours, both EU member states, when a straightforward meeting between their leaders attracts attention that in normal times would be won by much more spectacular events. But times are not normal, including for Polish-German relations. These have been strained in recent months not just by disagreements over Nord Stream 2 and the refugee crisis but by the government’s attempt to counterbalance Germany inside the EU (rather than seeking an alignment of interests) and, more fundamentally, by its rejection of the idea of Europeanisation and Westernisation as a governing principle of Polish foreign policy. However, it is not just the recent temperature of Polish-German relations which explains the importance of Merkel’s visit to Poland but also the international situation in which it took place. For both countries, this is the most crucial bilateral conversation between the leaders of Poland and Germany since 1989.
The reasons for this are obvious. Both Brexit and the election of Donald Trump have set in motion discussions in Europe (and beyond) which may quickly change the EU in a more profound way than all previous setbacks to integration. Interestingly and worryingly, the early responses in Germany and Poland to both challenges could not have been more divergent. While in Germany Trump is seen as the incarnation of the worst German stereotypes about America, the Polish national-conservatives welcomed – despite his controversial positions on NATO and Russia – his ascent to power as another victory for the anti-establishment movement (after Kaczynski’s). And while, for Berlin, Brexit may mark the first step towards the disintegration of Europe, Warsaw sees in it the best proof yet of the EU’s major institutional deficits, which require fundamental correction. Both Trump and EU reform are potential sources of deep and fatal divisions – a reason for Merkel both to be worried and to seek a dialogue with her Polish counterparts. Merkel did not come to Poland to discuss a new strategic partnership but rather to address the new split running through Europe. The most important question which Merkel effectively asked in Warsaw was: ‘What is Poland willing to do (and sacrifice) in order to strengthen and not weaken the EU in the face of these unprecedented challenges?’
Poland’s European policy will remain an enigma as long as its actual course depends on Jarosław Kaczynski’s mood and will
It does not seem as though she received a clear answer. In fact Poland’s European policy will remain an enigma as long as its actual course depends on Kaczynski’s mood and will. And since his interest in foreign and EU affairs is to a large extent just a function of internal policy, it is no surprise that Poland’s position on key EU issues lacks coherence and clarity. Rather than designing the policy, the prime minister or the ministry of foreign affairs try to figure out what the party leader’s thinking might be and adjust their rhetoric accordingly – or explain his often contradictory statements.
Will Poland push for big EU treaty reform in the context of the EU anniversary summit in March 2017, as some have suggested? While Merkel regards this as a Pandora’s box, last Monday the principal adviser to the minister of foreign affairs Witold Waszczykowski announced that Polish proposals for EU reform are ready. Other government sources deny that this would be a priority in the upcoming months. And while Germany wants to prevent central and eastern European countries ganging up against Berlin and Brussels, such a bloc has long seemed to be on Kaczynski’s mind. In a recent interview in the Hungarian weekly Heti Válasz, Kaczyński said that cooperation among the countries of central and eastern Europe could serve as a counterweight to the current leadership in Brussels and “the efforts in Europe aimed at total hegemony”.
Furthermore, Poland’s ministry of foreign affairs reacted critically to president of the European Council Donald Tusk’s letter ahead of the EU summit in Malta. The statement read that the EU “is in need of deep reform”, the main element of which should be “to strengthen the voice of national parliaments and the governments of member states”. Uncertainty remains around Poland’s position on the “flexible integration” and Europe of multiple speeds recently endorsed by Merkel. Kaczynski rejected this idea in his television interview after the chancellor’s visit. At the same time a certain flexibilisation of integration, by allowing member states to opt out of some integration projects, is obviously a part of Poland’s current EU vision.
There are also questions concerning relations with the United States. Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, has invited Trump to the regional summit of the ‘Three Seas Initiative’ (a cooperation format composed of countries between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas) in Wrocław in June this year. This could raise concerns that Poland (along with a group of the region’s countries) will want to take independent action in their relations with the US, not necessarily coordinated with the remaining EU countries.
Against this backdrop Merkel’s visit was not a breakthrough, nor the opening of a new chapter for the Berlin-Warsaw relationship. Further meetings were announced and there will still be a lot to discuss and clarify when the Polish and German leaders sit down again together. The stakes of the upcoming decisions are high for Poland. The new, softer, tone towards Germany and attempts at a rapprochement with Berlin are linked to the relative alienation of Poland in the EU. Its key partner, the United Kingdom, has decided to leave the EU, the Visegrad group is too disparate and too weak to rely on, and the US has become highly unpredictable. Warsaw must therefore must decide if it wants to use the possible flexibilisation of EU integration as an opportunity to engage with Germany and other key partners, or to stand apart. No doubt Poland’s position in the EU will depend on the level to which it is prepared to share responsibility for the EU as a whole. The level of solidarity that other countries show Poland will depend on how firmly established Poland is in its main areas of EU cooperation. Membership of these circles (the euro, migration policy, defence policy) overlap to a large degree; however, Germany will be at the core of them all. Poland’s priority ought to be to strengthen the bonds linking it to the EU, not weaken them. It should also refrain from taking steps which could disrupt European unity. Nor should action taken to maintain the EU’s and Poland’s close relations with the US cross the red line of the overriding importance of the EU’s cohesion.
If Poland adopts this strategic course it could facilitate some overdue and difficult discussions with Berlin on issues where some more flexibility in thinking and actions on the German side would be welcome. These include contradictions in Germany’s Russia policy (tough on Donbas and Crimea but an open door policy for Gazprom’s interests in central Europe) and insufficient understanding of Poland’s strategic economic modernisation dilemmas, both of which are also European problems. Will Merkel’s Warsaw visit boost the Polish-German partnership in a Europe which needs trust-based relationships more than ever? That remains very much to be seen.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.