Why Poland is the new France for Germany

Germany and Poland have become close political allies. The future of the European Union may be decided in Berlin and Warsaw. But has Poland replaced France as Germany's most trusted European partner?   

Germany and Poland have become close political allies. The future of the European Union may be decided in Berlin and Warsaw. But has Poland replaced France as Germany's most trusted European partner?

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It needed the tragic airplane crash in Smolensk in 2010, where Poland lost half of its military-politico elite, to effect a complete u-turn, not only in the Polish-Russian, but also the Polish-German relationship. The latter had developed in the preceding years quite nasty – and somewhat absurd -narrow-minded and revanchist reflexes in domestic policy affairs, leading to farouche Polish-German battles over ridiculous things (e.g. the right for Germans to buy property in Poland etc.). These were fuelled by the so called association of WW-II refugees in Germany (“Vertriebenenverband”), who often triggered – in a way completely deserved – equally harsh reactions in Poland.

The years in which the quite populist Prime Minister, Jaroslav Kaczynski, governed Poland were ones in which Poles and Germans fought harsh battles over the mathematical formulae in the EU negotiations preceding the Lisbon treaty which decided the new distribution of voting power. These didn’t make the relationship any smoother. The symbolism of the Weimar triangle thereby invoked  couldn’t rescue it. Poland and Germany were pretty much at odds in the middle of the last decade; some may say even more than when the Iron Curtain was still dividing them.

The events of Smolensk changed it all. Not only did Russia and Poland enter on a course of rapprochement, a major change in their mutual relationship. Both countries decided to end the small ‘Cold War’ between them in which Russia had resolutely ignored Polish interests and expectations, and Poland blocked many European Union initiatives towards Russia.  Sheer mistrust was replaced with openness, which led the way to mutual cooperation.

In addition, although Poland had been deeply hurt by being bypassed by Germany in its relation to Russia through the ‘Gasprom’ connection (the North-steam pipeline project has been a thorn in the flesh for Poland) between former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin, Poland had the courage, with respect to Germany, to take the bull by the horns and decided to go with Germany, instead of against Germany. Poland, by 2010 and after Smolensk, actually convinced Germany, which was all too ready in the middle of the last decade to cosy up to Russia, to Europeanize its “German Ostpolitik”. Tellingly, after the 2009 elections, the new German foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle went first to Warsaw, whereas the first visit of a German foreign minister normally went to Paris. In a way, the two countries switched roles with respect to Russia: Poland went from too suspicious to more friendly; Germany from nearly blind trust to making policy conditional on its fit for a European framework. This is what constructive u-turns in foreign policy look like. Probably, in a couple of years time, this example will be featured in textbooks of international relations on how to improve your relationship with the neighbours for the better through confidence and cooperation.

In 2011, this double Polish u-turn enabled the new Polish-German tandem to be an innovative and leading combination when it came to unlocking hitherto deadlocked EU-Russia relations. In November 2011, Radek Sikorski and Guido Westerwelle suggested closer cooperation with Russia in a common letter to the EU chief of foreign affairs and asked her to focus on modernizing Russia's economy and keeping oil and gas flowing as a top priority. The letter brushed aside concerns on the prospect of Vladimir Putin's non-democratic return to office in 2012 and urged Ashton to help make him a “reliable partner” on international security and energy issues.  “We must stay the course to intensify ties with Russia and overcome political and economic lethargy,” the Westerwelle-Sikorski letter said.

This has, unfortunately, not so far helped in the transformation of Russia, leading it towards greater commitment to democracy. The recent ‘Pussy Riots’ case is just another dreadful example of deteriorating democracy in Russia’s relationship to its own civil society after the presidential election. However, what has improved is the European reaction to Russia which has become more united and this is very promising. It was Poland and Germany, which made this happen. Without France, by the way.

…then Europe

After having played a decisive role in re-calibrating the geo-strategic orientation of Europe towards Russia, the new tandem is now seeking to tackle Europe from the inside with the same energy, and hopefully better results. The latest example is the joint letter of Guido Westerwelle and Radek Sikorski in the New York Times in September 2012, in which they ask for, and sketch out, a new vision of Europe. This is the continuation of a new – and perhaps game-changing – trend in Poland’s attitude towards Germany in the European context and this trend has its own history.

In a remarkable speech in Berlin a year ago, Poland’s highly proactive foreign minister Radek Sikorski said: “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity”. These words were much quoted in European, and of course especially German media, though – significantly – French newspapers barely noticed it. Yet, at a time of darkening European gloom, the Polish FM’s speech was noteworthy not only in that it expressed a ringing endorsement for “more Europe” (in fact Sikorski was heavily criticized for that at home where the sovereignist current is still very strong), but because it was made by a Pole. Warsaw has not habitually been considered a member of the inner circle of EU decision-makers. Furthermore, this Pole expressed his country’s support for Germany’s leadership in the EU (“Nobody else can do it… You have become Europe’s indispensable nation.”) in no uncertain terms. The US, UK and France were singled out as “friends and allies” – but only Germany was named “friend and ally… above all”.

Newly assertive Poland: historical roots and economic miracle Such ringing declarations are rare in international politics, where it is always safe to juggle options and keep doors open. Poland, in particular, has in the past played up its supposed ‘privileged relationship’ with the US, to the point of having been called ‘America’s Trojan horse in the EU’, built a close bond with London through common perspectives on social and economic regulations and defense, and, historically, has also maintained a special relationship with Paris. Zbigniew Brzezinski had already envisaged the new and ample strategic position Poland is going to hold in a future Europe in his book “The Grand Chessboard”, as part of a postulated alliance with Germany, France and Ukraine. Yet the first three are now just friends and allies, nothing more. The US lost much of its appeal by systematically ignoring Warsaw’s interests (Polish forces fought in Iraq and Afghanistan, yet Poles still need visas to go to the US), and Britain through its obstructionism in EU crisis-solving. France never recovered from the shock of Jacques Chirac’s « Ils ont perdu une bonne occasion de se taire », even if, in retrospect, the French President’s comment on the “new Europe’s” alignment with US policy on Iraq, though arrogant, was not without merit. While these relations deteriorated, those with Germany grew.

There were good reasons for that. Berlin had not only been the most determined European advocate of Poland’s accession to NATO and then, especially, to the EU itself, but has become Warsaw’s key economic partner. One fourth of Polish exports go there, accounting for 10% of GNP and making Germany Poland’s biggest export market. Poland, though only Germany’s tenth market, is still bigger than Russia; Germany’s FDIs, both in terms of cumulative amount (EUR1.2bln in 2010 alone) and number of investors, make the country the biggest foreign investor in the Polish economy. Poland’s robust economic growth (4.2% GDP last year, 2.4% projected for 2012) makes Poland an attractive partner. Accordingly, 75% of Poles in 2010 (but only 48% of Germans in 2008) considered mutual relations to be “good or very good”.

All this explains Sikorski’s accolade to his country’s historical Nemesis. And yet his words came with an important qualifier: “Provided you include us in decision-making, Poland will support you.” Yet Germany was clearly unable to overcome stiff French resistance to Polish aspirations to sit in on eurozone decision-making, and Sikorski’s enthusiasm waned. “You will not be a benign hegemon in Europe and you shouldn't even try” he told his German hosts just a few months later, at the Munich Security conference. Since then, Poland has renewed attempts to woo back France (Sikorski’s visit to Paris in March, and candidate Hollande’s reception by President Komorowski in April).

Furthermore, the controversy over the deteriorating political situation in Ukraine opened a new front: Germany’s Merkel compared Ukraine to Belarus and seemed to threaten a boycott of the EURO2012 championships. Poland, EURO co-organizer with Ukraine, rejected both the comparison and the appeal. It seems, however, that the two countries had not even consulted on such a vital matter. As a back-drop, their common policy towards Belarus lies in shambles, as Lukashenka again increases his repressive policies.

Does this mean that the honeymoon is over? Hardly – for neither country would really want a cooling of relations, let alone anything more serious. Berlin, for all its dizzy new status, is hardly the hegemon Sikorski warned it not to become. Until Poland joins the eurozone (as it declared it intends to, once the dust settles) no German magic will give it a place at the table, and a softening of the French opposition to possible half-measures is something for Warsaw to obtain in Paris.

But Paris, its privileged position vis a vis Berlin now lost, certainly has no interest in granting that seat to Warsaw, thus further improving Poland’s status. Berlin, unless it wants to become to Europe what the US is to the world – indispensable, yet hated – needs friends, but will not trade, even partially, Paris for Warsaw. Both Paris and Warsaw are ‘nonnegotiable’ for Berlin. The three capitals will continue their jockeying, possibly again within the framework of the largely decorative Weimar triangle, but nothing much will change. Berlin and Paris still need another, and Warsaw needs Berlin, on levels so deep that no other configuration can come remotely close. Poland’s weight – political, economic, defense – even if growing, is still incomparable to that of France, even if declining.  As it was stated in the ad which ended one of America’s great advertisement wars, in which Avis, the runner-up car rental company, challenged the industry giant Hertz, with the slogan “We are #2, but we try harder”. Hertz countered by saying: “Avis says they are #2. We agree”.


When all is said or done, it seems the continuation of a Polish-German tandem for Europe will be a matter of engagement, endurance and hard work. These days at least, Germany and Poland seem more committed to delivering on concepts, ideas and political commitment to Europe than anybody else. Obviously, there are questions and nothing is easy. The first question is: for how long will this honeymoon last? Is it really structural – an irreversible new partnership, or just the chemistry between two foreign ministers who decided to work closely together?

However, there is reason to assume that the good relationship and the tandem-character will last: for Poland, because it has placed all its bets on one card and that card is Europe. Poland needs Europe to succeed, economically as much as strategically. And Radek Sikorski is doing a lot to secure this. Poland can live with and in a strong Europe, but not next to a strong Germany, in case the Euro and European project should fail under the populist strain it is currently in. Therefore, Poland at whatever cost, needs a successful Europe with a functioning Germany in it that doesn’t go global on its own.

Germany meanwhile needs a strong partner in Europe. France is, for many in Germany these days, falling behind. It is not doing enough on the dossier of structural reforms in the economy and adapting to global markets; whereas Poland still has substantial growth and ideologically also buys more into the ‘liberal’ German economic philosophy. Further, and in strong contrast to Poland, currently France has not opted into the market of ideas for a more political Europe and how the new European democracy could be organized. Germany, however, has had the painful experience of isolation when it recently tried to dominate Europe institutionally and to impose its own policy preferences on the eurozone, at least economically. It cannot shape these ideas alone. German institutional ideas for a ‘more’ and a better Europe were always generally well accepted when they came accompanied and thereby, sublimated; usually by France. But they cannot arrive alone and Poland today has already largely replaced France as a German tandem partner, when it comes to institutional ideas for Europe.

The shaping of the future institutional relationship between an ever more integrated EU 17, not only fiscally but  – nolens volens – politically, and a Poland which remains outside of this process for the time being, will not be easy by any standards. But Poland is strongly committed to joining the Euro around 2016. Until then, the EU-system will need to cope with delicate questions about how to keep the gate open between the EU 17 and the EU 27 and organise a passerelle between those in the eurozone striving for further integration (e.g. through the forthcoming banking union which will most likely be decided at the October EU Council). One concrete idea could be to create observer seats in the EuroGroup, for example. Poland’s way to currently engage in this discussion is also its way to stay in an ever more integrated Europe.

The real question is if in taking their distance from this discussion…. this is the French way of standing offside from what should actually become the most important, creative and ambitious leadership-trio the EU has seen, a way of preparing its future without forcing Germany to change its bride: a sort of leadership-enlargement of the former Franco-German tandem after the 50th birthday of the Elysée treaty in 2013, which the EU both deserves and badly needs!

This article first appeared on opendemocracy.

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


ECFR Alumni · Associate Fellow
ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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