The provincial German-Polish relationship

One should not expect a parting of the ways between Poland and Germany in the near future so much as the further provincialisation of their relations in a changing European Union.

Germany took over the presidency of the European Union on 1 July and will lead the bloc during an exceptionally difficult and important moment for Europe. However, it is not issues related to integration that have recently increased tension between Warsaw and Berlin, but bilateral problems. For weeks, Poland has flouted diplomatic convention by withholding accreditation for the new German ambassador, without providing a reason. During Poland’s presidential campaign in July, Polish state media outlets supporting the incumbent, Andrzej Duda, broadcast anti-German propaganda. The president himself publicly attacked a German correspondent for publishing an article on the election, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summoned the German chargé d’affaires to express its outrage at the tone of commentary on Poland in the German press. The issue of war reparations – which Warsaw expects from Berlin (without having formally requested them) – returns like a boomerang when the Polish government has a political need for it, and disappears when Poland’s communications with Germany call for other signals.

A crisis of trust

In recent years, the Law and Justice government’s awareness that it can always play the anti-German card for the purposes of domestic policy or as moral blackmail has led to a crisis of trust in relations between the two countries. In the 2020 edition of the European Council on Foreign Relations’ EU Coalition Explorer – a survey of how elites in different EU countries perceive one another – four in five German diplomats and experts say that they consider Poland to be the “second most disappointing” EU country (it was narrowly beaten in this category by Hungary). Poland ranks highly (in fifth place) among the countries Germany most frequently contacts on matters related to how the EU functions. However, it is telling that, in this area, Poland ranks below not only France but also Germany’s smaller neighbours, the Netherlands and Austria, as well as Spain. Poland is not only a large market and crucial trade partner for Germany – it is also a country widely known in the EU as a champion of free markets. Nevertheless, on issues related to the functioning of the single market, Germany views Finland, Italy, and Spain (not to mention France and the Netherlands) as more important partners than Poland.

Poland is not one of Germany’s most important partners on foreign policy either. In this area, German respondents prefer to work with France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy. Even on Russia policy – which is widely considered to be Poland’s specialisation in the EU, and the subject of frequent consultations with Germany – German diplomats and experts consider Poland to be no more important than the Netherlands or Italy (and all three of them to be less important than France). In policy areas high on the EU’s agenda such as climate change, digitalisation, migration, and China, German respondents sometimes regard Poland as an important or welcome partner, ranking the country in the second or third tier of allies.

Germany has significantly increased its diplomatic involvement in areas where it has traditionally kept a low profile.

However, this does not mean that Polish-German cooperation will be replaced by conflict. Germany has not been prepared to come out against Poland on any issue that is being negotiated at the EU level, besides the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. Berlin has avoided open confrontation with Warsaw over the rule of law, and has accepted that it cannot count on it to assist with the relocation of refugees. The stronger the centrifugal forces in the EU, the more Germany is willing to bridge divides that could threaten the bloc.

Germany and European sovereignty

Therefore, Polish-German relations are characterised not by a crisis but rather by the gradual disappearance of any aspirations to create a political partnership of significance for Europe. The EU agenda is increasingly – and, perhaps, chiefly – shaped by external challenges such as climate change, migration, great power politics, and geopolitical crises. Transatlantic relations are particularly significant in this. Many Europeans are convinced that the United States is undergoing a reorientation that will lead it to place less weight on its partnership with the EU.

This raises questions about how the bloc can take action independently of the US or even protect itself from hostile American policy – in areas such as extraterritorial sanctions on Nord Stream 2. Warsaw is not only satisfied with the measures but actively encouraged the US to implement them. Regardless of whether Nord Stream 2 should be constructed, America’s actions have confronted the EU with a question: how should it react to the use of economic coercion? This is the crux of the current debate on European sovereignty – and Germany and Poland are having trouble finding a common language.

In recent years, Germany has significantly increased its diplomatic involvement in areas where it has traditionally kept a low profile, such as the Libyan war and Turkish-Greek disputes. Policy on eastern Europe – so crucial for Poland – is no longer the only, or even main, reference point of German diplomacy. The more Germany considers the problems of the EU as a whole, the more it needs to account for the positions and interests of all member states and find harmony among them. This explains why there are also countries from southern Europe on German respondents’ list of preferred partners in foreign policy. In a recent speech at a conference of ambassadors in Paris, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas called on Italy, Spain, and Poland to take on greater responsibility for EU foreign policy as a whole.

Meanwhile, Germany’s attention and political efforts will be ever more focused on cooperation with countries that are prepared to address the migration challenge. Poland is not one of them.

Gideon Rachman, in a recent Financial Times commentary, quoted a German diplomat as saying that Berlin has more pressing concerns than Brexit. The diplomat mentioned relations with Russia, the fallout of the covid-19 pandemic, the situation in the eastern Mediterranean, the US, and China. Germany is increasingly involved in a broad range of policy areas. And it is changing its perspective on its neighbours and allies. The Polish-German relationship will increasingly depend on discussions of European sovereignty and the role Poland plays in them. Poland is not currently an active player in areas that are crucial to the future of the EU and its external relations. This will not necessarily lead to tension with Germany (or other countries), but it may mean that Poland becomes a peripheral – and, therefore, less attractive – partner.

If Poland attempts to contribute to solutions that reach beyond the horizon of its national interests, the country could both have a major influence on the direction of change in the EU and make its relationship with Germany more important to Berlin. With Germany likely to take on more responsibility in the EU – as Poland has long called for – Polish-German relations will become increasingly provincial and their significance will be of limited importance to Europe.

Translated from the Polish by Nicholas Furnival

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

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.