Poland should be a supportive partner towards Germany instead of a scoffer
The anti-European and anti-Teutonic phobias of the ruling party are perilous for Polish interests.
The Russian war against Ukraine has radically reshaped the threat perception. The realignment of western politicians and societies is not an easy process, especially when there is still an awareness of previous assumptions and grave economic consequences – the energy crisis, high inflation and recession – which threatens to undermine political stability. European countries are quickly stocking up on arms and freeing themselves from earlier Russian energy dependence.
The Polish government of PiS (Law and Justice party), does not accept the leading role of France and Germany within the EU and in transatlantic relations with the US over security.
Frozen relations with France
Post-war France was unsuccessful in its attempt to cut out a role for itself on the international stage, independent from the Anglo-Saxons. President Charles de Gaulle withdrawing from the military structures of NATO in 1966 and proclaiming that he saw no need for keeping the American protectorate in Europe “under the cover of NATO” is a perfect example. In response to growing threats, President Nicolas Sarkozy announced a return to the military structures of NATO in 2009. The Franco-British attack on Libya with the aid of the Americans in 2011, somewhat forced by their military weakness, showed the limitations Paris had in influencing global affairs.
The same was evident in the many attempts made by French presidents to strengthen the country’s position through developing relations with Russia. However, it should be noted that these attempts coincided with the efforts of all successive US presidents aimed at improving relations with Moscow. President François Hollande would later, under considerable international pressure, blocked the transfer of two cutting edge Mistral helicopter carriers in response to the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine in 2014.
The war of 2022 changed everything. The failed attempts at influencing Vladimir Putin made by President Emmanuel Macron led to the announcement of a new National Security Strategy on November 9th the same year. This strategy refers to French sovereignty and European autonomy, while clearly emphasising the role of NATO and the US in the security of Europe. In it, one can read that “the US has yet another time shown it is the main guarantor of European security, evident by the scale of its involvement in Europe and the military support given to Ukraine”. Furthermore, it stresses that “the breakdown caused by the war and the irreversible nature of Russian strategic decisions lead to the possibility of a confrontation with Moscow”.
Such an alignment with the Polish perspective would have been appreciated if it had not been for the strongly adverse policy pursued by PiS, fuelled by the arrogance stemming from the severing of a contract for Caracal helicopters in 2016. The state of bilateral relations was made clear during a speech by Macron which accompanied the announcement of the new National Security Strategy, a result of several public debates in the higher echelons of power. Macron listed different countries around the world that were close to France. In the region of Central and Eastern Europe he pointed to Romania and Estonia (where French troops are stationed), but not Poland.
The role of Germany
Critics omit the fact that Berlin continuously stresses the importance of NATO and its strategic ties with the US. Geography and economy do not make Germany a purely western European, Central European nor Baltic country, as it belongs in all of these categories. This in turn influences its politics, economy and diplomacy.
European integration and NATO membership solved the historical “German problem” in Europe. Yet, Jarosław Kaczyński, the head of PiS, puts into question the status quo without having any tools to impact reality in hope of political advantages ahead of the elections. This approach has been disregarded in practically all EU capitals. The “Sovereigntists” heed an absurd notion that they strengthen Poland’s role by trying to weaken Germany. It would suffice to present these questions in Washington and all the other CEE countries which outright have been dismissing the intentions of forming the Three Seas (before that Intermarium) – as a geopolitical project intended to counter Berlin and Brussels.
The party leader set the tone by proclaiming “a German hegemony under the flag of Europe”. His subordinates in turn spread apocalyptic visions that have little to do with real problems, nor the politics of Germany. Zdzisław Krasnodębski, an MEP, outdid everyone when he said that “the threat to our sovereignty from the West is greater than from the East.”
Witold Waszczykowski, the former foreign minister claimed that “Germany wanted and still want a German-Russian condominium over Central and Eastern Europe”.
Meanwhile, Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, an advisor to the president, explained that “in the end, Germany, France and Russia all have the same strategic goal – to push out the US from the European system”.
Jan Parys, former minister of defence, stated in October 2022 that “Berlin is doing everything it can so that the Polish economy and state are weak”. A month later he added that “Germany would not find support for its policy in Europe if their only solution to real problems would be pursuing hegemony”.
I should be jealous, as they all seemingly have access to projects of chancellors, governments and political parties no one else has heard of. A feature of these as irresponsible as unfounded statements is that their basis cannot be documented or quoted. What remains is the power of their imagination and convictions.
Parys became my particular favourite as an expert on Germany after he, as the head of the Political Cabinet of minister Waszczykowski in 2016, gathered a group of experts at the foreign ministry and, changing the previously announced topic of the meeting, stated that it was necessary to consider the consequences for Poland of the possible disintegration of Germany… The gathered were amazed. The reason for this joyful vision was a public protest by the Bavarian prime minister against Angela Merkel’s migration policy.
The objections to Berlin’s foreign, economic and financial policy are formulated in numerous capitals, including the loss of credibility due to insistence on the construction of the Nord Stream gas pipelines, as well as inconsistent aid to Ukraine. Although Germany ranks now the second in terms of financial and armaments donations, the aid is far below its economic and military potential. The radical change in policy announced by Chancellor Olaf Scholz – the Zeitenwende – does not undermine the fact that it was the bombs, occupation and Russian crimes in Ukraine in 2022 that changed German policy towards Moscow.
It is in this process of adjusting to the new reality that Poland should be a supportive partner, rather than an aggressive scoffer with little influence. The schadenfreude of the governing bloc regarding the present economic crisis is also surprising if one takes into account that the recession in Germany would immediately impact the situation in Poland itself. Germany is not only responsible for 25-28 per cent of Polish exports and over 20 per cent of its imports; but also the final value of trade with Germany accounts for more than 7 per cent of Poland’s GDP according to the OECD.
We can better understand the reasoning if we take heed of Kaczyński’s words from 2016: “I would be willing accept a slowdown in economic growth if in turn I could push through my vision of Poland.” Or the megalomaniac statement from this year: “We defend Christian civilisation in the name of all humanity.”
The United Right ruling coalition has isolated Poland in Europe by antagonising a majority of European governments. It also prompts criticism in Washington which is softened due to Poland’s important role in aiding Ukraine.
Real problems ought to be discussed in all seriousness. This includes the policies of Germany and France in Europe, and the future relationship between the EU and the US. This is a result of uncertain future politics in the US itself and the differences in approaches in international politics, mainly towards China, but also with regards to the EU in the trade and manufacturing dimensions.
The EU is concerned by the growing protectionism and unfair competition prompted by placing greater tariffs on European products and the increase in subsidies offered to American industry. The EU will certainly work to protect its own common economic interests. However, as long as the US is a crucial ally with regards to security, every Polish government would be inclined to carefully manoeuvre through any trade dispute.
The anti-European and anti-Teutonic phobias of Kaczyński, the Minister of Justice Zbigniew Ziobro and their acolytes are perilous to Poland’s strategic interests. They do not strengthen Poland and remain only an expression of their convictions, distant from the real problems. They proclaim sovereignism not in order to strengthen the sovereignty of the country, but because they are unable to formulate economic or political goals which Poland could not achieve in the current institutional and allied arrangement. There is silence in this respect, drowned out by the cry: “Germany won’t let us!”.
The real goal of this operation is not the sovereignty of Poland, but securing impunity and a free hand in running the country at the expense of the rule of law, democracy and the cohesion of the EU – which is so important during the war in Ukraine. The European Commission works to strengthen the political foundations and unity of the European Union itself, also through the judgments of the European Court of Justice. With or without Poland – at the expense of its security and development opportunities.
The first version of this article was originally published in Polish by Rzeczpospolita on December 13th 2022
Translated by Daniel Gleichgewicht
Eugeniusz Smolar is a foreign and security policy analyst at the Centre for International Relations in Warsaw. Under communism, he was a member of the democratic opposition, political prisoner and émigré. He also worked as a journalist and former Director of the Polish Section of the BBC World Service in London for many years. Following his return to Poland, he became the deputy chairman of the Management Board of Polish Radio. He is also a member of New Eastern Europe’s editorial board.