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June 30, 2021

Great Expectations (II): Clearing the Air. A View from Poland

Germany’s approach to relations with Poland in recent years has been characterized by caution. A new government in Berlin that includes the Greens could shake things up, ultimately for the better.

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Polish Prime Minister Tadeuz Mateusz Morawiecki
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German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s foreign policy toward Poland and other neighbors to the East was always based on two kinds of factors, historical and economic ones. Both led to a very cautious approach.

Heightened historical sensitivity to the potential reception of criticism from Germany in Poland led to far-reaching restraint that extended to practically all topics, not just historical ones. When it became necessary, Berlin preferred to delegate articulating criticism of—or putting pressure on—the Polish government to the institutions of the European Union. (This cautiousness toward its eastern neighbors held Germany back from assuming the leadership of European Union—which some heartily regretted. “I fear German power less than German inaction,” then-Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski famously said a decade ago.)

Economic calculations have also motivated Germany to adopt far-reaching pragmatism. Few people are aware that the four Visegrád countries Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia taken together have more trade with Germany (€287 billion in 2020) than China (€213 billion). Poland alone is Germany’s fifth-largest trading partner (€123 billion) and is rapidly catching up with France (€147 billion). For comparison, Russia is only in 14th place (€44.5 billion). The essential difference with China or Russia is that trade with the Visegrád countries is dispersed among thousands of small- and medium-sized companies.

Economic Symbiosis

Conflict between Germany and Poland or Hungary would be harmful to both sides, and this fact tempers Berlin’s willingness to criticize these two countries or impose costs on them when they break EU rules. From the German perspective, the countries of Central and Eastern Europe have numerous attractive qualities: they offer a cheap and well-educated workforce and managerial staff, large tax breaks for German companies, geographical and cultural proximity, as well as predictability. As a German entrepreneur explained to a Polish journalist, “We finally have our Korea,” referring on the one hand to the post-World War II economic symbiosis that benefitted Japan and South Korea, and on the other hand, to the rivalry between the two economic powers of Germany and Japan.

The prospect of post-pandemic economic regionalization, which some argue should partially replace globalization in order to make supply chains safer and more predictable, makes Central and Eastern Europe an invaluable partner for Germany. What is more, German business is a natural beneficiary of structural funds that Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia receive from the EU budget.

Economy and history are the two structural factors that the next German government will inherit. The third factor underpinning German restraint is the personality of the chancellor herself. It seems that Merkel, when forced to choose between two mutually exclusive options—defending the rule of law in Poland and Hungary or defending European unity—has kept choosing the latter. Toward the end of her term, she brokered a compromise agreement on the new EU budget for 2021-2027 and the Recovery Fund, both of which Poland is the main beneficiary (receiving €139 billion in subsidies and €34 billion in loans). She thus managed to postpone the enforcement of the conditionality principle, i.e. conditioning disbursement of European funds on compliance with the rule of law, which the Polish and Hungarian governments constantly violate, for two years.

The Pipeline Problem

Merkel’s record is clearly mixed. Economic relations with Central and Eastern Europe can certainly be deemed a success, but her high tolerance for the rise of populism is a failure. Among the results of the latter is the almost complete destruction of media independence in Hungary, the liquidation of the Central European University in Budapest, and attacks on judicial independence in Poland—all of which gave rise to accusations that Berlin was engaged in appeasement and sponsoring authoritarianism.

There is also Merkel’s stubbornness in pursuing the completion of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline. A joint Russian-German project, it would make transit through Ukraine unnecessary and indeed economically inefficient. Merkel’s justification of the project as purely economic sounds less and less credible in light of Russia’s increasing aggression toward its neighbors and its own citizens. It was not until 2018 that the German chancellor admitted that Nord Stream 2 also had political significance. But neither the poisoning of Alexei Navalny and his subsequent imprisonment, nor the massing of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine changed anything in terms of the German government’s plans. Merkel promised only to link the launch of Nord Stream 2 with the need to secure Ukrainian interests.

Armin Laschet, Germany’s likely next chancellor, has also declared that he is ready to see the pipeline completed. In contrast, the Greens oppose the project for ethical, geopolitical, and environmental reasons. Bolstering the budget of an increasingly authoritarian leader like Russian President Vladimir Putin undermines human rights. Gas-based energy undermines the transition to renewable energy sources, which is Germany’s and the EU’s expressed aim.

If Nord Stream 2 is completed, Germany’s next government will have to fulfill its promise to secure Ukrainian interests. One possible solution would be to link the volume of gas shipped through Nord Stream 2 to the volume transiting through Ukraine. A second important measure would be assistance toward developing Ukrainian infrastructure in order to guarantee its energy independence. Tests show that Ukraine is already capable of dealing with a complete cutoff of gas from Russia. The real stake is not Ukraine’s dependence on Russia, but Russia’s dependence on Ukraine in terms of gas trade with the West.

A Valuable Counterbalance

The security and independence of Ukraine is of fundamental importance to the security and independence of Poland, whose primary foreign policy principle formulated by the exiled scholar and activist Jerzy Giedroyc is: “There can be no independent Poland without an independent Ukraine, Belarus, and Lithuania.” The flip side is that the best possible relations with Germany as well as membership of both NATO and the EU are the best guarantors of Polish independence and prosperity.

Poland’s rapid economic development could even predestine it for more of a leadership position within the EU. It appears that between the start of the financial crisis and 2015, when the populist PiS government came to power in Warsaw, Germany was guided by more than just economic and historical considerations in its relations with Poland. Poland represented a potential counterbalance to France on the one hand, and to the countries of southern Europe  on the other (during the euro crisis, Poland was a staunch ally of Germany). Close cooperation between Poland, which knows Eastern Europe well, and Germany, which knows Western Europe well, seemed like a perfect match.

PiS’ victory squandered this chance and imprisoned Polish-German relations in an ad hoc, reactive policy with a focus on economic and cultural issues. Now the future of Polish-German economic relations depends on the direction the German economy takes. If Germany manages to make a technological leap, moving away from cars powered by internal combustion engines, the importance of Central and Eastern Europe to its economy may decline.

Widening Horizons

The current German economic model is based on 20th-century technology, low wages, subdued domestic consumption, and exports. It therefore requires new markets. But this model has been put to the test by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the results are prompting the acceleration of efforts aimed at increasing investment, digitalization, and domestic consumption, as well as shortening supply chains (the necessity of which was recently illustrated by a lack of chips for car computers) as well as switching to climate-friendly technologies.

It is already clear that the issues that once formed the essence of Polish-German relations are becoming less important for Germany. The horizon of German foreign policy is widening. The world expects ever-greater engagement from Germany; the new US administration is counting on it.

For Berlin, the EU’s immediate neighborhood is becoming more and more important given the prospect of American withdrawal. It was not without reason that negotiations over Libya took place in Berlin. The importance of relations with China, where Germany aims to balance risks (security) and benefits (exports), will grow. Poland does not play a significant role here, although its starting position is not bad, given that it lies on the transit route. Poland is not politically or economically dependent on China, and it also plays the role of a subcontractor for German exports to China.

Germany is seriously engaging with the issue of migration to Europe, which will become increasingly significant. Poland, meanwhile, is not making any attempts at finding a solution. The importance of the euro as an international currency will increase, but Poland has no plans to join the eurozone. When it comes to transitioning to cleaner energy sources, Poland is the most reluctant country in the EU, although its practices are slightly better than its rhetoric. Germany and the PiS government at least agree on the fact that climate change is a key problem and that the goal is to decarbonize.

The next parliamentary elections could bring a more cooperative government in Poland, but they will not take place until 2023. After the September elections in Germany, the new German government can hardly be expected to wait that long to determine its bilateral relations, especially given the fact that a change on the Polish side is far from guaranteedand even less so in the case of Hungary.

A New Rapprochement

Given all the crises (the financial crisis, the war in Ukraine, the migration crisis, the pandemic) that have taken place since Sikorski warned against passivity, Germany would be guilty of geopolitical immaturity if it continued avoiding a leadership role. The foreign policy of a medium-sized power cannot consist solely of securing business interests, because business will always sacrifice values for profits, and long-term plans for short-term gain.

A coalition between Merkel’s CDU/CSU and the Greens represents a chance for Germany to transition to the 21st-century technology of the Green New Deal, and what is more, to be its European leader, promoter, and implementer, especially east of Berlin. Without a green Poland or a green Romania, Europe will certainly not achieve carbon neutrality—which, for Germany, is both an ideological goal and a potential source of economic benefits.

For a new rapprochement to take place between Germany and its largest neighbor in the East, perhaps a temporary crisis is needed. While the reputations of the CDU and the CSU are tainted by their tolerance of undemocratic changes, the Greens enjoy public trust and are seen (not just in Germany) as a party that defends the rule of law and human rights. Their stance on Putin’s Russia may give them the authority to engage in meaningfully blocking populism in Poland. For things to get better in the future, perhaps they first have to get worse. The economies of both countries will not suffer from this political cooling, and the air will become clearer—both literally and figuratively.

Slawomir Sierakowski is senior fellow at the Alfred von Oppenheim Center for European Policy Studies at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). He is the founder and leader of Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), an Eastern European movement of liberal intellectuals, artists, and activists.

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