Aktuelles > ECFR: Why Poland is the new France for Germany

Artikel Details:

  • 22.10.2012 - 15:04 GMT
  • ECFR
EU-Erweiterung, Außen- & Sicherheitspolitik

ECFR: Why Poland is the new France for Germany

By Ulrike Guérot & Konstanty Gebert
Germany and Poland have become close political allies. The future of the European Union may be decided in Berlin and Warsaw. But has Poland replaced France as Germany’s most trusted European partner?


It needed the tragic airplane crash in Smolensk in 2010, where Poland lost half of its military-politico elite, to effect a complete u-turn, not only in the Polish-Russian, but also the Polish-German relationship. The latter had developed in the preceding years quite nasty – and somewhat absurd -narrow-minded and revanchist reflexes in domestic policy affairs, leading to farouche Polish-German battles over ridiculous things (e.g. the right for Germans to buy property in Poland etc.). These were fuelled by the so called association of WW-II refugees in Germany (“Vertriebenenverband”), who often triggered – in a way completely deserved – equally harsh reactions in Poland.

The years in which the quite populist Prime Minister, Jaroslav Kaczynski, governed Poland were ones in which Poles and Germans fought harsh battles over the mathematical formulae in the EU negotiations preceding the Lisbon treaty which decided the new distribution of voting power. These didn’t make the relationship any smoother. The symbolism of the Weimar triangle thereby invoked  couldn’t rescue it. Poland and Germany were pretty much at odds in the middle of the last decade; some may say even more than when the Iron Curtain was still dividing them.

The events of Smolensk changed it all. Not only did Russia and Poland enter on a course of rapprochement, a major change in their mutual relationship. Both countries decided to end the small ‘Cold War’ between them in which Russia had resolutely ignored Polish interests and expectations, and Poland blocked many European Union initiatives towards Russia.  Sheer mistrust was replaced with openness, which led the way to mutual cooperation.

In addition, although Poland had been deeply hurt by being bypassed by Germany in its relation to Russia through the ‘Gasprom’ connection (the North-steam pipeline project has been a thorn in the flesh for Poland) between former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and Vladimir Putin, Poland had the courage, with respect to Germany, to take the bull by the horns and decided to go with Germany, instead of against Germany. Poland, by 2010 and after Smolensk, actually convinced Germany, which was all too ready in the middle of the last decade to cosy up to Russia, to Europeanize its “German Ostpolitik”. Tellingly, after the 2009 elections, the new German foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle went first to Warsaw, whereas the first visit of a German foreign minister normally went to Paris. In a way, the two countries switched roles with respect to Russia: Poland went from too suspicious to more friendly; Germany from nearly blind trust to making policy conditional on its fit for a European framework. This is what constructive u-turns in foreign policy look like. Probably, in a couple of years time, this example will be featured in textbooks of international relations on how to improve your relationship with the neighbours for the better through confidence and cooperation.

In 2011, this double Polish u-turn enabled the new Polish-German tandem to be an innovative and leading combination when it came to unlocking hitherto deadlocked EU-Russia relations. In November 2011, Radek Sikorski and Guido Westerwelle suggested closer cooperation with Russia in a common letter to the EU chief of foreign affairs and asked her to focus on modernizing Russia’s economy and keeping oil and gas flowing as a top priority. The letter brushed aside concerns on the prospect of Vladimir Putin’s non-democratic return to office in 2012 and urged Ashton to help make him a "reliable partner" on international security and energy issues.  “We must stay the course to intensify ties with Russia and overcome political and economic lethargy," the Westerwelle-Sikorski letter said.

This has, unfortunately, not so far helped in the transformation of Russia, leading it towards greater commitment to democracy. The recent ‘Pussy Riots’ case is just another dreadful example of deteriorating democracy in Russia’s relationship to its own civil society after the presidential election. However, what has improved is the European reaction to Russia which has become more united and this is very promising. It was Poland and Germany, which made this happen. Without France, by the way.

…then Europe

After having played a decisive role in re-calibrating the geo-strategic orientation of Europe towards Russia, the new tandem is now seeking to tackle Europe from the inside with the same energy, and hopefully better results. The latest example is the joint letter of Guido Westerwelle and Radek Sikorski in the New York Times in September 2012, in which they ask for, and sketch out, a new vision of Europe. This is the continuation of a new – and perhaps game-changing – trend in Poland’s attitude towards Germany in the European context and this trend has its own history.

In a remarkable speech in Berlin a year ago, Poland’s highly proactive foreign minister Radek Sikorski said: “I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity”. These words were much quoted in European, and of course especially German media, though – significantly – French newspapers barely noticed it. Yet, at a time of darkening European gloom, the Polish FM’s speech was noteworthy not only in that it expressed a ringing endorsement for “more Europe” (in fact Sikorski was heavily criticized for that at home where the sovereignist current is still very strong), but because it was made by a Pole. Warsaw has not habitually been considered a member of the inner circle of EU decision-makers. Furthermore, this Pole expressed his country’s support for Germany’s leadership in the EU (“Nobody else can do it… You have become Europe’s indispensable nation.”) in no uncertain terms. The US, UK and France were singled out as “friends and allies” – but only Germany was named “friend and ally… above all”.
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