On Feb 7, 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel finished her official visit to Poland. Until recently, the key problem of the Polish-German relations has been Poland’s ruling party, the right-wing national conservative Law and Justice (PiS), who disrespects the EU’s “values” and objects to Merkel’s migrant quotas. Even more, under PiS, the Poles have organized a Baltic-Visegrad Fronde against the EU’s migration policy. New Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo publicly accused Merkel of having made Europe unstable. After Brexit, the Poles appeared with an initiative to reform the EU – something similar to what David Cameron suggested in the UK before Brexit.
So, logically, we can expect the Poles to also break away should their decentralization initiative be declined. The Poland of PiS Leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski and the Germany of Angela Merkel have very different visions of future Europe: the Poles see their strength in decentralization, while the Germans link it with even deeper integration, the Poles are skeptical about euro, while the Germans want to make it stronger.
As regards the “values,” for almost one year already, they in Berlin and Brussels have been trying to prevent PiS from authoritarian moves. In Jan 2016, the European Commission inquired into the approval of a law restricting the powers of the Polish Constitutional Court. In Dec 2016, it gave the Poles two months for improving their judiciary. And even though the Germans prefer not to act directly here, they cannot help criticizing PiS and Kaczynski.
The Polish mass media have qualified Merkel’s visit as a forced measure, a marriage of convenience between Germany and Poland, while the German press sees it as one more example of Merkel’s pragmatism. Süddeutsche Zeitung does not however think that pragmatism is enough in relations with the Poles and advises the Germans to keep the “values” in mind.
Now that the visit is over, it remains to be seen what will prevail in German-Polish relations – pragmatism or the values. Süddeutsche Zeitung suggests the third option: pragmatism multiplied by mutual interest. It says that Germany needs Poland now that Brexit has shattered the EU and has disoriented France. For Germany Poland in the east is as important as France is in the west.
The basis of the German-Polish mutual interest is economy. In 2016, the German-Polish trade turnover exceeded 100bn EUR due to the Germans’ shifting some of their labor-intensive concerns to Poland. Just to compare, in 2016, the Russian-German trade turnover made up 30.4bn EUR. So, it is clear who the Poles will play with and against whom. When in opposition, Kaczynski warned the Poles against German-Russian control. The Poles still distrust the Germans but their hatred for the Russians is stronger. And this may well be the key ground for German-Polish rapprochement.
It was Merkel’s first visit since PiS’s victory in 2015. It was her response to the last year’s visit of Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo to Berlin. In Aug 2016, Szydlo expressed commitment to look for common grounds with the Germans.
In Warsaw, Merkel met with Szydlo and Polish President Andrzej Duda but it was just a formality. The highlight of her visit was her meeting with Kaczynski, whom German mass media call the uncrowned actual ruler of Poland. The anti-governmental Gazeta Wyborcza even joked that Merkel’s visit has revealed the weakness of the government system in Poland. Before the joint press-conference Merkel and Szydlo were introduced as Angela and Beata as if they were just two girls.
They in Berlin said that it was Kaczynski’s initiative to meet. For many years already, the PiS leader has stayed at home. And he very seldom agrees to meet with foreign guests. Some German experts saw some alarming hint in Kaczynski’s decision to meet with Merkel in a hotel named Bristol. They think that the Pole meant the possibility of Poland’s following the UK’s example if Merkel continued being critical towards his nationalist regime. Merkel was very friendly and told Kaczynski that when young in GDR, she was delighted with the Poles’ anti-Communist Solidarity movement. “Solidarity influenced my life too,” she said.
Obviously, during their meeting, Merkel and Kaczynski discussed strategic problems but the details are not known. But before Merkel’s visit, the PiS leader gave an interview to Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) and was all but ambiguous. He said that he would welcome Europe as a nuclear super power but this would require mass expenses. Now that the UK has broken away from the EU, the only EU member having nuclear arsenal is France. Some experts believe that the Frenchmen may place it under someone else’s control. So, we have all grounds to suspect that by saying “European nuclear weapons” Kaczynski meant “Germany’s nuclear weapons” and that the Poles would not object to having their finger on the nuclear button. In the interview to FAZ, the PiS leader said that he would like to see the EU as a strong counterbalance to Russia.
One more interesting point of Kaczynski’s interview is that he believes that in the nuclear energy sector, the Poles must be able to compete with the Russians. Obviously, the PiS leader is jealous of his Hungarian friend, Prime Minister Viktor Orban. But the problem is that he used the “our” possessive pronoun when talking about nuclear energy and it is not clear if he meant the Polish, Polish-German or European nuclear energy sector. For the time being, only the UK and France have highly developed nuclear energy sectors.
Kaczynski also called for the EU’s fundamental reformation as the only way for the Union to survive. According to him, the EU has made two big mistakes: the Treaty of Lisbon and the refugee crisis. The PiS leader shares Trump’s opinion that only Germany benefits from united Europe. He is against monocentrism and multi-speed Europe and believes that mass reception of refugees could ruin the Christian civilization.
Despite his criticism, Kaczynski is going to support Merkel during this year’s election in Germany simply because he suspects her rival Martin Schulz of being pro-Russian and cannot forgive him his anti-PiS statements.
But the key factor here is that the war in Ukraine has turned about and that Merkel supports the anti-Russian sanctions.
Let’s sum up the results. Brexit has made it impossible for Kaczynski’s Poland to reorient its foreign policy towards the UK. On the other hand, Brexit and possible Frexit are forcing both Poland and Germany to look for common grounds and one of such grounds is the EU’s anti-Russian policy on Ukraine. With Donbass on fire, Trump in the White House and the EU’s unity at stake, Kaczynski’s Poland will try to enhance its role in the EU. Merkel is aware of this. So, it was all but coincidence that while she was in Poland, her Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen was inspecting the German troops deployed in Lithuania quite recently.
EADaily’s European Bureau