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Poland and Germany: Progress despite expectations

For 25 years, Warsaw and Berlin have shared a ride in the same car, often on rocky and bumpy roads, but mostly agreeing on the route. Since Law and Justice (PiS) took power, Chancellor Angela Merkel has observed the developments from a distance, rarely speaking out, unlike many other European Union officials. Over the past 14 months of PiS’s rule, however, some advancements took on an extreme character, and the Polish-German car seemed to have hit an icy patch with the breaks failing. Chancellor Merkel seems to agree that a longer stay in a garage should be prevented, and paid Poland a flying visit on Tuesday last week.

February 15, 2017 - Jacqueline Westermann - Articles and Commentary

merkel szydlo

Germany and Poland are two countries that not only share a border but also a long history,  carrying heavily the dark chapters of Second World War. Recently the German-Polish relationship reached a significant milestone: 25 years of the Good Neighbourship Treaty, signed in June 1991, which entered into force on January 16th 1992. However, despite the pleasant-sounding label, the current atmosphere between Poland and Germany is far from perfect. Just like a typical neighbourhood, most of the time they live peacefully side-by-side, grumble together about annoying municipal regulations, while at other times complaining behind the curtains about each other to their wives. But soon enough, they will go back to chatting over the fence, back to harmony – so one would hope.

After PiS’s victory in 2015, expectations of a progressive relationship seemed ill-fated from the beginning. However, politicians tried to ease the situation, for example former President Joachim Gauck, said he was not sure at first if Poles and Germans would be able to uphold their friendship under the new government but that in general the climate seemed to be worthy of friendship. He claimed that a bridge appeared that neither of them had probably expected.

Nevertheless, soon Polish and German politicians started clashing. The EU Commission put Poland under supervision; Martin Schulz, former European Parliament president and the Social Democrats’ candidate to face Merkel in the federal elections later this year, even claimed a “Putinisation of European politics”. Polish Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz countered that he refused to have Germans criticising and teaching his country about freedom and democracy, comparing the critique towards institutional crisis and media reform to German war atrocities. Polish media outlet Wprost added fuel to the fire by portraying Merkel, Juncker and Schulz in Nazi uniforms, who allegedly were trying to “control Poland again”, highlighting one issue: the differing assessment of the relationship. In Poland it is seen as a “normalisation”, while in Germany the expectations grew closer to “friendship”.

In November 2014, the German ambassador to Poland, Rolf Nickel, stated in an interview that reconciliation had been achieved. Was that so? True, Poland has become a close partner and ally, probably the closest after its pendant in Germany’s west – France. Both relationships were driven by similar motivation (a shared history), and are the foundation of European integration. With the Good Neighbourship Treaty, Germany agreed to help Poland steer through the rough waters of integrating into the Western world, and successfully became allies in military and economic terms. In political terms – not so much. Institutional cooperation or interconnection between political communities is poor to non-existent. Politico claims that the reconciliation did not run deep enough and Germany concentrated its efforts on the liberal elites while ignoring the far right and nationalists of PiS and beyond. The refugee crisis then highlighted the differences between the two, underlining a lack of mutual understanding and abilities to discuss.

While former Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski feared German inactivity more than its power, Poland’s current political elite could not be further away from this point of view. Though, the tone changed after the Brexit vote: rather than targeting Germany’s politicians, the focus was on EU institutions and personnel. PiS leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, even stated he would appreciate Merkel’s re-election. PiS knows that with the UK voting “leave”, Poland lost its main ally in regards to limiting the EU’s powers. Poland needs Germany in its stand against Russia, to protect the interests of CEE countries during Brexit negotiations, and most importantly, as a pillar of strength in the future of transatlantic relations. Germany needs a stable partner in addressing the issues facing Europe due to France’s unknown fate after the presidential election.

Most commentators draw a dark picture. Bartosz Dudek from Deutsche Welle writes relations are in “free fall”. He accuses Germans of having a lack of understanding and showing ignorance towards Poland, adding German critiques will cause the proud Polish people to become only more stubborn. Agnieszka Łada, who publishes a German-Polish mood-barometer, provides a little sunshine in the grey atmosphere of the relationship: while indeed the political partnership cooled, relations on economic, social and civil levels are still strong, indicating there might not be momentum for large-scale changes, but rather pragmatic and small projects at the grassroot levels. The focus on border regions, city partnerships and rural areas could offer a chance to make small steps forward.

Chancellor Merkel’s visit last week indicated a willingness to make things work at last despite different opinions, an exploratory consultation prior to the upcoming EU summits of 2017, mainly the Rome summit in March, where the roadmap for post-Brexit will be discussed. Meetings with Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, President Andrzej Duda, and the highly anticipated meeting with PiS’s head Jarosław Kaczyński passed without major revelations or breakthroughs. Merkel touched upon the sour topics of press freedom and rule of law – despite the rocky history of critiquing the Polish government – and Beata Szydlo put the finger in the Nord Stream 2 wound. Both also tried to underline common interests, as they are aware of the dependency on each other in order for the EU to survive. Merkel’s visit and bilateral meetings are a hand offered at the beginning of that bridge, which former German President Gauck had mentioned in the past. Whether PiS will take it to cross the bridge hand-in-hand, towards creating a proper partnership, potentially accepting compromises and aiming at proper friendship, will be seen over the course of this year. However, the PiS government knows that a walk side-by-side is less dangerous than a car ride, certainly. 

Jacqueline Westermann works with the Warsaw office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States. She received her MA degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of St Andrews, UK, and a BA in Political Science and Law from the University of Muenster, Germany. She also writes for the Moscow German Newspaper and her own blog, The PACT Online.

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