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What Germany does not know

The end of the balance of power in the EU with policies decided by so-called “old Europe” could be one key consequence of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This ongoing shift needs to result in a strategic alliance between Poland and Germany. However, is this possible?

December 14, 2022 - Anna Kwiatkowska - Articles and Commentary

Border between Poland and Germany Photo: Andrzej Rostek / Shutterstock

The war in Ukraine, Poland and the majority of Central and Eastern Europe’s exceptional reaction to it, and the involvement and support of the US have all intensified the view that “the European Union is shifting eastwards.” This is not yet a geographical enlargement similar to the one we saw in 2004, but rather a shift in the EU’s centre of gravity. To put it simply, this means that our region – and Poland in particular – has grown in importance.

We have shown unprecedented involvement in helping Ukraine at every level, from political, through to military and humanitarian assistance (this has been offered by the state, local governments and society). This, as well as the increased security of NATO’s eastern flank and Poland’s strategic role as a logistical hub for supporting Ukraine, have together boosted our importance in both purely political and security terms.

As a consequence, Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th 2022 could involve the end, or at least the beginning of the end, of the current political balance of power in the EU. This could bring about the end of the status quo in which countries of so-called “old Europe” play a dominant role in the process of policy-making.

Scholz still does not understand

It seems that Germany has become aware of this challenge and is making attempts – at least rhetorically – to cope with this change. Naturally, Berlin views this shift as a difficult one. While delivering his platform speech on European policy at Prague’s Charles University in August, the German leader stated that “I do not want an EU of exclusive clubs or directorates, but an EU with members enjoying equal rights. And I wish to add quite clearly that the fact that the EU is continuing to grow in an eastward direction is a win-win situation for everyone. Germany, as a country at the heart of the continent, will do everything in its power to bring together East and West, North and South in Europe.”

Such words by Scholz, which sum up the ongoing changes in a highly reserved manner, are puzzling. This is especially true when others are speaking of an evolution or even a political revolution taking place in front of our eyes. Some have even suggested that this situation equates to “the tables being turned” on old Europe. It is legitimate to ask whether the chancellor has failed to notice the momentous change that is taking place, whether he is perhaps deliberately trying to downplay it, or does not view it as important at all.

Incidentally, it should be noted that his speech – just like many other statements offered in crisis moments in the past – featured a familiar German narrative in which the country is posing as a seemingly servile mediator (seemingly servile because who can control and manage the process better than the famous “honest broker”?).

There is much to support a hypothesis suggesting that what we are witnessing is a lack of awareness of the changes taking place in Europe and (perhaps most importantly) a lack of awareness of how much Germany has lost its political credibility – especially in Central and Eastern Europe but also in the US. This is made clear in numerous speeches by the chancellor’s closest advisors, the head of the German chancellery and, finally, by Scholz himself.

The unfinished moves

But there are also other actors on the German political scene, as well as business representatives, who give the impression that they are not fully aware of the depth of the cracks in Germany’s image caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the subsequent course of the war. This seems to be the reason behind various partial, or even unfinished, moves such as the delayed supplies of heavy weapons to Ukraine. Other similar situations include a large portion of German business subordinating itself to political decisions and, at the same time, waiting impatiently for the war to end and a normalisation of relations with Russia (80 per cent of the small and medium-sized German companies that had operated in Russia before February 24th 2022 have probably remained in the country).

This results in the fairly widespread conviction within the German political and business elite that none of the recent developments are so grave that they could not be remedied using recent policy, albeit with minor or major (or even radical, for example in the energy sector) modifications. One example of the belief in such modifications involves the German foreign ministry’s proposal that Berlin, in tandem with Paris, should lobby for a “strategic reorientation of Europe’s policy on Russia”. After February 24th 2022, is this really the best duo to work on a new EU policy on Russia? Would this cooperation not simply be like the blind leading the blind?

Fake it till you make it

Apparently, the Germans believe that any views suggesting that their former policy towards Russia (which made them dependent on a dictatorship) has failed completely are only a temporary political disruption. They feel the same about the outrage sparked by their delayed reaction to the invasion and their insufficient support for Ukraine (compared to their potential). They believe that these processes are reversible, and that this can be done quickly, although it will require some effort. They also believe that Germany can retain its role as a leading state in shaping Europe’s future (and, importantly, that it can lead the process of the post-war reconstruction of Ukraine).

Moreover, as it finds itself in an increasingly difficult situation, Germany is using its typical tactic of “fake it till you make it”. Through statements uttered by numerous Social Democrats, including the party’s co-leader and the defence minister, it is offering Europe its leadership role (Führungsmacht), including in military affairs.

Germany has lost a significant amount of importance and credibility, but not its potential – something we should remember, especially in Poland. Instead of continually scolding and criticising Germany (in the spirit of schadenfreude) for its undoubted strategic mistakes, we could focus on finding opportunities for genuine cooperation with this rich, large and populous country.

It is becoming increasingly evident that without Polish-German cooperation it will be difficult to develop the European Union project (although, obviously, it will not cease to exist without this cooperation). Genuine management of Europe’s ongoing change should bring about the formation of a strategic alliance between Poland and Germany – as these two countries are each other’s key partner. This is all the more so because there are no prospects for prosperity in the EU if our part of Europe is not represented in governance activities.

Problems affecting the alliance

In this thesis, every word matters. “Key” partners are not exclusive partners. After all, an alliance with France or Ukraine is not redundant or unwanted. “Partners” are equal players who know that they are mainly fighting for their country’s interests and that no one could care about these interests more than they do themselves. “Partnership” or “alliance” does not rule out mutual criticism, but the adjective “strategic” acts as an incentive to support the development of the project, i.e. the EU, as a whole.

This vision is overshadowed by two problems. Both of them are fundamental. Germany is unaware not only of the ramifications of its loss of credibility and of the failure of the policy it has pursued so far, but also of the need to launch a strategic partnership with Poland. Poland, for its part, is not ready – as Germans nicely put it – to “assume responsibility”, i.e. to shoulder the burden of a portion of governance in the EU.

Solving these two problems will require a considerable amount of time and both are immensely difficult to overcome. It should be noted that the Polish “problem” requires investments in the development of efficient institutions and in individuals capable not only of devising strategies for action (including an answer to the question: What kind of EU do we want?). It also requires efforts to ensure that more Polish nationals are appointed to jobs in EU institutions, from the lowest to the highest ranks, wherever decisions are made and implemented.

Obviously, the polarisation of the Polish political scene forms a major obstacle in this context. However, evidence shows that we are able to integrate and carry out joint efforts in implementing huge cross-party projects that last longer than one parliamentary or presidential term.

A shock for the German elite

It seems that the problem posed by the enormous effort that the Polish political class would need to undertake is less serious than the effort that awaits German decision-makers. This is due to the fact that any change on the German side would require something close to an evolution of identity, a complete remodelling of the truths in force in Germany thus far and a rejection of former axioms – the pillars of politics, not only in the field of foreign policy.

After all, would it not feel like an outright metaphysical shock for German politicians to simultaneously acknowledge that the Franco-German engine has lost momentum (or even the ability to function at all) and that the Central and Eastern European states are pursuing a more reasonable policy in many aspects? It would also be hard to admit that Poland’s policy towards Russia and the post-Soviet area, although not devoid of mistakes, was fundamentally right, and had a cross-party and strategic dimension based not only on experience but also on constantly expanding expertise.

Moreover, it has been demonstrated that our understanding of the US as the pillar of Europe’s security was more reasonable than Germany’s stance on this issue. It has also been shown that Poland’s migration policy is not emotional (in German political culture “being emotional” is seen as an insult) and is not based on nationalism and xenophobia but on rational assumptions taking into account financial, security and – most importantly – social aspects. Warsaw has exemplified the idea that patriotism is a virtue, one of the most precious virtues, and has nothing to do with nationalism.

Why Germany needs Poland

If Germany remodelled its thinking along these lines, it would come to the conclusion that Poland is a valuable partner with regards to genuine consultations. Berlin would also seek to share responsibility regarding the most important issues related to how the EU is being shaped and how it will develop. This includes the intention to make the EU “a global player”, which is what Germany strives for, at least in its rhetoric.

For the time being, Germany does not know why it would need Poland. Certainly not why it would need Poland as a strategic partner. Germany continues to try to pursue a specific, genuine policy in the EU mainly in tandem with France, while in contacts with other partners, including Poland, it focuses on “other diplomatic activities” and rhetoric. The more efficient a politician, the more pleasing their rhetoric is in their subsequent interactions.

This has not changed. As always in difficult situations in Polish-German relations, German politicians come to Poland and, as if speaking in unison, repeat a slogan that is so clear that it could be referred to as the message of the day: “Let’s think about the future!” We already heard this as an answer to difficult questions many years ago – during the row over the Centre Against Expulsions, during discussions regarding the construction of subsequent lines of the Nord Stream gas pipeline, and during debates on policy towards Russia, including offers presented to Russia and on how Russia perceives the world. Now, this slogan has re-emerged in an unchanged form in connection with the debate on helping Ukraine.

Blood, sweat and tears

Meanwhile, we – the Germans and the Poles – are presented with a major opportunity and a difficult period at the same time. Poland and our entire region will need to invest “blood, sweat and tears” – including in assuming greater responsibility for the European project – to devise and forge strategies regarding action and the utilisation of our resources.

This process will be difficult. And it will be even more difficult to convince Germany and France to modify their way of operating.

We should care about the Germans in particular. We cannot allow them to once again settle into their stubborn intentions of implementing the smallest possible number of necessary changes (which only encourages a return to the “more of the same” method), while naively expecting different results than those achieved previously.

This holds true for both the war in Ukraine and the avalanche of changes across all areas it has triggered and will trigger in the future.

This text was first published in Polish in Tygodnik Powszechny no. 40

Anna Kwiatkowska is the head of the Department for Germany and Northern Europe at the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.


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