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Resolving borders and building bridges

When we think back to June 1991, we see great value in the treaty between Poland and Germany. It was a new beginning in relations between the two states. Yet, the treaty was more than bilateral, it was also a building bloc in the construction of a new Europe, without which there would be no united Germany, NATO or the European Union. Every time I cross the Polish-German border, which nowadays is merely a formal line, seeing as there are no controls or checkpoints, I feel like a free European. I feel the positive aspect of history and the great decisions that led us here. I write this because as a teenager, I experienced a completely different reality, a continent divided by the iron curtain. Even in the 1990s, a time when Poland was already free and Germany had united, cross-border travel was not as pleasant an experience as it is today, because the Oder and Nysa rivers marked the periphery of the European Union. At that time, we still had to wait at the border and go through border control.

June 16, 2016 - Basil Kerski - Articles and Commentary

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Grzegorz Mehring / Archiwum ECS

I call myself a member of the 1989 generation. That year had a massive impact on my future. It was that year that I turned 20 and it was also the year when I decided on my educational path, as I realised that I wanted to focus on this new Europe and become involved in Polish-German relations. It is also when I decided to stay in Berlin, even though I did not like West Berlin and did not see many opportunities there. Despite those things, the collapse of the Berlin Wall encouraged me to stay and follow Germany’s transformation from a close distance.

Bold vision

There is a certain paradox in history. When I think of 1991 and the Polish-German Treaty of Good Neighbourship and Friendly Co-operation, I realise that we took this event for granted. The overall atmosphere in 1990 and 1991 was that there was no question that we would enter onto and follow the path towards democracy, freedom and peace in Europe. When this treaty was signed, we were looking at it in a rational, not emotional manner. Today, I am under the impression that we appreciate more what happened then, an opinion that is shared by many of my colleagues. Of course, this is a result of the changes that took place in Europe in the years that followed, including the crisis in Ukraine caused by Russia’s revisionist policies, which contributed to the fact that ideas such as peace in Europe are no longer taken as read.

That is why when we think back to June 1991, we see great value in the treaty between Poland and Germany. It was a new beginning in relations between the two nations. While reading this treaty, although it can come across as broad and vague, it formulated a bold vision and set a direction for these relations to follow. The treaty spoke of the community of values, interests and of Poland joining the western community at a time when the Warsaw Pact, the Soviet Union and Comecon still formally existed. Nevertheless, these great visions laid out in the treaty came true. Today we value the courage of those people who outlined this vision for us.

Another important point about this treaty, something that is missing from our public discourse in Germany and Poland, is the role it played in Germany’s unification. This process was not limited solely to the 2+4 format, meaning the two German states and the four allies. These difficult negotiations included discussions on the conditions to allow for a form of unification where Germany could become a sovereign state, which also meant a withdrawal of Soviet troops from German soil. The 2+4 process finally closed the epoch of post-war of history and included the issue of borders and Germany’s final acceptance of its eastern boundary. Poland joined the process in July 1990 in Paris and the outcome of the negotiations Germany’s sovereignty was two key documents: the border treaty between Poland and Germany, signed in November 1990, and the 1991 Neighbourship treaty, the 25th anniversary of which we are celebrating this year. Therefore, when we talk about the 1991 treaty and its anniversary, we are in fact talking about the foundation of a new anti-Yalta order in Europe.

Without a doubt, the treaty was bilateral, but it was also a building bloc in the construction of a new Europe, without which there would be no united Germany, sovereign Poland, NATO or the EU in the guise that we know them today. The decade of the Solidarity revolution, which began in 1980, also brought about a revolution that lasted three years from 1989 to 1991. It led to processes such as the fall of communism in 1989, the unification of Germany and the collapse of the Soviet Union, including the emancipation of the nations that had been dominated by Moscow. However, the issue of Europe’s post-war borders remained formally incomplete. Of course, they had been confirmed in many documents, such as the 1970 treaty between the German Federal Republic and Communist Poland, or between East Germany and Communist Poland. Regardless, it was important to close this post-war chapter.

The issue of the Polish-German border was as important for internal processes in Germany as it was for Poland. The key to Polish sovereignty was an acceptance of its post-war borders, those that were imposed on it, as well as an understanding that a united Germany is good for Poland, whereas a divided Germany was an obstacle to Poland’s independence. The reunification of Germany moved Western Europe to Poland’s borders and opened new opportunities for its emancipation. Thus, Poland’s independence and democratisation, as well as Germany’s reunification, were closely linked, which is why this treaty is so important. Unfortunately today, these things are often forgotten in both Poland and Germany.

Spirit of the treaty

Looking at the last 25 years from a wider perspective, it is remarkable that both countries greatly profited from this co-operation, resulting in a strong position in Europe, both politically and economically. This was all possible thanks to the fact that both states treated their mutual relations as part of their European and even multilateral policies. In the 1990s, I was sceptical towards the Weimar Triangle (France-Germany-Poland). I did not agree with the German rhetoric at the time that a Polish-German reconciliation is a repeat of the French-German pact of forgiveness. For me, these are two completely different processes and I pointed out this fact to many people in Germany. The Polish-German reconciliation was a much more difficult affair and for it to be successful, we had to be aware of this fact. Nonetheless, I was also aware that the Polish-German treaty was just as important for European integration as the 1963 Franco-German one. Clearly, Weimar co-operation has turned out to be a positive instrument in creating a system of consultations in which Poland plays a key role in the EU. This co-operation between the three ambassadors of the Weimar Triangle in Brussels was decisive in many decisions. The same applies to security and neighbourhood policies. Without these mechanisms there would probably be no EU sanctions levied against Russia.

Another positive development of the last quarter century and one that had a significant impact on Poland and Germany’s mutual relations was Poland joining the EU in 2004. It is important to recall that in the years leading up to Poland’s accession, a large part of German society was against Poland becoming a member. Opinion polls from that period present a very incoherent picture; German society supported EU enlargement, but took a different approach to each aspiring state. They supported Hungary and the Czech Republic but not Poland. A significant feat of political restraint that goes unappreciated is the fact that the German political parties did not exploit these critical attitudes towards Poland. The German elite acted against public opinion, since it understood that having Poland in the EU was in Germany’s best interests. At this time, Poland was providing support for the United States-led intervention in Iraq. Simultaneously, crucial debates were taking place in Europe over a new EU constitution. The voices of Poland’s two largest parties, Civic Platform (PO) and Law and Justice (PiS), were critical to a deeper integration. At that time the Polish-German relations were additionally burdened by the policy of the Shröder government towards Moscow and the German debate on commemorating the post-1945 forced migrations. It was a time of crisis in Polish-German relations. Despite this, the German elite acted in the spirit of the 1991 treaty and drove forward and supported Poland’s EU membership bid.

History of people

The history of these new Polish-German relations can also be viewed as a history of people. It is certainly true that charismatic individuals make history and shape politics. Today, the criticism that is levelled by some nationalistic Polish politicians and journalists at Krzysztof Skubiszewski and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, respectively the foreign minister and prime minister in 1989 and 1990 and two founding fathers of the new Polish-German-partnership, is somewhat unfair. Nationalists accuse them of being submissive towards the neighbour and lacking criticism. Skubiszewski, who had little experience in foreign affairs, behaved like a skilled diplomat. Right from the start, both Mazowiecki and Skubiszewski understood the importance of Polish-German relations for Poland’s independence. They had impressive backgrounds and even though they had come to Germany from a poor country, that was in deep economic and social crises, they were respected and well-received.

A great majority of Polish presidents, prime ministers and ministers of foreign affairs continued Mazowiecki and Skubiszewski’s policy aimed at deepening Polish-German community of values and interests. They included especially: Lech Wałęsa, Aleksander Kwaśniewski, Bronisław Komorowski, ministers Władysław Bartoszewski, Bronisław Geremek or Radosław Sikorski, and prime ministers: Jan Krzysztof Bielecki, Hanna Suchocka and Donald Tusk. Poland was also lucky when it came to its diplomatic service and had great ambassadors to Germany (like Janusz Reiter, Andrzej Byrt or Marek Prawda) who could discuss difficult issues without offending their opposite number. The meaning of dialogue was understood in the wider context of these relations.

On the German side, the most notable personalities of the German-Polish partnership after 1990 are Helmut Kohl and Angela Merkel. Let me start with Kohl who, from the perspective of Polish-German relations, was full of contradictions. On the one hand, in 1990 he made Mazowiecki’s life very difficult by not making it explicit that the Polish-German border was not an issue for debate. For Kohl, it was not, but he could not make this clear because he was afraid of the reaction it might provoke from the extreme right wing of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU). Kohl’s achievement was that he used the historical opportunity that came with Central European revolutions of 1989 and despite many critical opinions led to a quick unification of Germany and withdrawal of Soviet troops from the country, thus moving the border of the western alliance to the Polish border. Also importantly, of great help at that time was the administration of George Bush senior who understood the opportunities that the European transformations of that time were bringing about. After Kohl, Schröder came to power. He was a chancellor full of contradictions when it comes to Polish-German relations and we often forget about his positive role. On the one hand, his friendship with Vladimir Putin and Gazprom was cause for concern. Yet on the other hand, before becoming chancellor, he was very much involved in the issue of the fate of forced labour during the Third Reich, which included the fate of some Poles. As the head of Lower Saxony, he was the main shareholder in Volkswagen and a member of its supervisory board. In the 1990s, Volkswagen was involved in a very intense debate about the company’s historical heritage. When Schröder came to power, groups of victims had sought an opportunity to blackmail European firms, especially German ones, with the help of American law. Schröder was well prepared and joint Polish-German-American co-operation led to the creation of a German public-private fund which paid reparation to Polish workers forced to work against their will in the Third Reich. Of course, such compensation is always symbolic but let us not forget about Schröder’s positive approach. As a result of the Iraq war, he later got into a dispute with both the Americans and Poland and because of that, he came into conflict with the post-communist Polish government.

After Schröder we have the long rule of Angela Merkel, a politician who is often underappreciated. Her uniqueness comes from two sources. Firstly, she is very intelligent when it comes to the implementation of German interests. She understands that Germany is at its best when it is a team player. Secondly, Merkel’s personal background is important, since there are not many politicians who have such an emotional attitude towards Poland especially the heritage of Solidarność. She belongs to a generation of East German intellectuals (Christians would be a better description) for whom Poland’s democratic culture has always been important. That is why when it comes to Polish issues, Merkel’s door is always open.

Crises ahead

Despite the success of the last 25 years there is still plenty of work that needs to be done. In this sense, Germany and Poland, as well as Europe more broadly, face serious risks. On the one hand, there are external problems with no obvious solution, such as the crisis in the Eurozone, the collapse of states in North Africa and the Near East and Vladimir Putin’s imperial politics.

On the other hand, there are crises or threats that we generate ourselves. One example is Europe’s attitude towards refugees. Merkel was unjustly criticised for welcoming them to Germany (especially by Polish public opinion). In Poland there is almost no talk that upon consulting with Hungary and Austria, Merkel invited the refugees who were already on EU territory to come to Germany. This created a significant problem, as it is difficult, even for Germans, to integrate such a large group of people. The German state was unprepared for such an influx and what we are now seeing is an attempt to get the situation under control. Nevertheless, this problem was not a result of some moment of folly but rather an inevitable consequence of the terrible situation facing the refugees in Hungary Austria and in the Balkans. Hundreds of thousands of people were already in the EU and Merkel made a gesture of humanitarian solidarity towards them. Unfortunately, Poland did not show Germany the same level of solidarity towards the refugees, nor enough interest in the development of the Middle East, although it participated in the US-led democratisation of Iraq. The main result of this failed transformation was the destabilisation of the Near and the Middle East that accelerated Islamic radicalisation processes. German politicians are aware of the ethnic situation in Poland, the lack of experiences with the integration of foreigners, especially from the South, but did not understand why Poland could not provide more assistance to European refugee-politics.

In my view, the deep Polish-German differences in the perception of migration can contribute not only to a new bilateral crisis but by getting linked to other European challenges (such as Brexit or policy toward Russia) to the destabilisation of the EU and its cohesion.

After 200 years Polish-German relations have finally reached a certain level of peaceful coexistence and bilateral cooperation of sovereign states, but we are celebrating this anniversary in very difficult times, a period of huge challenges which exceed politics, since they are a result of long-term dynamics and thus require long-term solutions. I fear that in the face of these crises, we risk forgetting the positive heritage of the last 25 years of Polish-German relations concentrating on differences between our political cultures. People like me (and there are many of us), meaning those who constantly travel between these two countries, frequently have to explain things. In Germany, I explain to people that comparing current development of Polish democracy to “Putinsation” is absurd and that some of the phenomena they see, including lack of European solidarity, nationalism, anti-liberal attitudes, xenophobia or islamophobia, are not strictly Polish problems; they also exist in France, Germany and other European states.

At the same time, the Polish media and politicians who reduce the refugee challenge to the tragic events that took place in Cologne or problems caused by refugees are creating new anti-German stereotypes, oversimplifying the cultural and social development of the Federal Republic. The truth is that migrants have changed German society and these changes are mostly positive. It is this positive change that has made these states completely different societies with different values. In culture, the voices of people who were not born in Germany are becoming increasingly visible and influential.

The influx of migrants during the 1980s and 90s has changed German culture, which prior to their arrival, was ethnically German and religiously predominantly Protestant or Catholic. Now, it is more universal. This is a shock and not everyone has accepted it. Yet at the same time, these changes are happening in France, the United Kingdom and Scandinavia. It is easy to get caught up in the negative tendencies of these shifts, but they are marginal and do not represent real cultural conflict, since conflict arises where there is success.

Regardless, Poles fear these developments, knowing that their homogeneity is an artificial creation. However, in this age of globalisation, Poles will change too and it may not even be Muslims who change the political culture in Poland, but rather Ukrainians or Russians. This is a very interesting experience that shows how irrational inter-state relations can be and how important people are. Today in Poland, there is a visible lack of people who could be guides in these interactions. Polish-German relations also fall victim to the language of politics in Poland, which is far from Christian. That is why it is difficult to accept that Merkel, who is the daughter of a pastor, was driven by biblical commandments, most notably, “love thy neighbour”, in her appeal to the (mostly Muslim) refugees.

The course of the last 25 years has not been straight and narrow. There have been certain cleavages and turning points which could be indicators of what is ahead. While Poland’s relations with Germany are getting deeper, which has been enabled thanks to its economic and social successes, voices critical of Europe and the Polish-German partnership are becoming louder in both Poland and Germany. Looking at recent years, some dissonance at the political level has emerged and should be interpreted as the elite looking for their place and identity at a time of deep civilisational and cultural changes in Europe. Yet at the level of social and economic relations, this dissonance does not exist. Indeed, in this respect, Poland’s relations with Germany are stronger than ever before, something that should give us hope for the next 25 years. What is more, it can also serve as an example of how to build good relations in other neighbourhoods, such as between Poland and Ukraine.

Basil Kerski is the director of the European Solidarity Centre in Gdańsk and the editor in chief of Dialog, a Polish-German bilingual monthly magazine.

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