Before Germany’s federal election last month, many analysts maintained that Polish-German relations had hit rock bottom. They may have been wrong.
As Germans cast their ballots, pedestrians in the centre of Warsaw passed by posters promoting the idea that anti-Polish Nazi decrees are still law in Germany (which is factually wrong). The posters, some of which included images of the German ambassador to Poland, were co-financed by the country’s nationalist populist government, which is led by the Law and Justice party (PiS). In normal times, this could have provoked a diplomatic scandal. But, today, a few posters make an impression on no one. Since PiS came to power in 2015, the government has used state media to spread brutal anti-German propaganda and called for war reparations from Germany. In spring 2021, intergovernmental consultations between Warsaw and Berlin did not take place, in a sign of worsening relations. And – most recently – Poland’s president, Andrzej Duda, refused to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel during her farewell visit to the country.
There is much truth to the narrative that the Polish-German relationship is now at its lowest point since 1989. Yet, if the relationship has not completely gone down the drain, it is thanks to Merkel. In the last six years, Berlin’s strategic patience in relations with Warsaw has become the stuff of legend. Merkel held to her mantra of EU unity – at any price – despite the Polish government’s anti-German propaganda, attacks on the rule of law, and Trumpian turn in foreign policy. Merkel may have provoked outrage in Warsaw by supporting the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, but she has been instrumental to Germany’s strategy of waiting out the challenge from Poland.
After the Bundestag election, it is now clear that this period is over. Poland is the EU member state that will miss Merkel most. And it may soon become clear that Polish-German relations have further to fall before they truly hit rock bottom.
For instance, the prospect of a government led by the Social Democratic Party (SPD) raises security concerns in Warsaw far beyond the government and anti-German circles. Germany is a key pillar of NATO, including the alliance’s deployments on its eastern flank. Even those in Poland who thrive on anti-German prejudice would acknowledge that Berlin’s military weakness is a much bigger worry than its supposed remilitarisation, which the left wings of the SPD and the German Greens oppose. With both parties likely to have prominent roles in Germany’s next government, German security policy threatens to become a risk factor from the Polish perspective. More fundamentally, both parties are sceptical about Germany’s participation in the NATO nuclear-sharing programme – and they may have to decide its future. Should Germany opt out of the programme – either formally or by failing to replace its nuclear-tasked Tornado aircraft – this would be a serious blow to its credibility and would further alienate Poland from debates about European defence. Add to this Polish leaders’ fear that ‘Russlandversteher’ (pro-Russian figures) in the SPD will turn the clock back on relations with Russia, and one can see storm-clouds gathering between Warsaw and Berlin.
Another point of contention is the rule of law. Merkel kept quiet on the PiS government’s violations of fundamental EU rules, hoping that EU institutions would deal with the problem. But her strategy backfired. The crisis has escalated. The Polish government now ignores judgments handed down by the Court of Justice of the EU and questions the primacy of EU law more broadly. The European Commission recently announced that it would protect the EU budget by triggering the rule of law mechanism sooner rather than later. Germany will have to decide at the EU Council if it wants to defend the government of its eastern neighbour or the EU’s key principles. The three parties that would form a ‘traffic light’ coalition government – the SPD, the Greens, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) – have all been much more vocal than Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union on the defence of the rule of law. And a left-leaning coalition of this kind would object more vigorously when the PiS government threatens the human rights of LGBT people or migrants, or the freedom of the press.
Lastly, the next German government will have no choice but to push for a more rapid climate transformation supported by EU regulations and decisions. Germany wants to become climate-neutral by 2045, five years ahead of the EU target. While the FDP wants to raise the carbon price to steer the transformation, the Greens want to push for more ambitious sectoral goals. Polish leaders see all this as a threat to their country’s prosperity, and have not put forward a viable strategy to implement the green transition at home. Warsaw is currently engaged in so many disputes with Brussels that it now openly threatens to block EU initiatives, hoping to achieve its goals by blackmailing its partners.
Of course, this picture could be different. Poland’s and Germany’s economies are so closely entangled that they could form an ambitious green partnership in the coming decades. Warsaw and Berlin could also work closely to both defend the EU against authoritarian states’ weaponisation of migration (as is currently happening on Poland’s eastern border) and to protect the bloc’s humanitarian standards. Indeed, there has probably never been a moment in the last 30 years when the Polish-German partnership could have made such a positive difference for Europe. Sadly, the conditions for doing so have never been worse in the period.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.