Berlin seeks to maintain a strong partnership with Poland, despite rhetoric
After the presidential elections in May 2015, no one was surprised by the electoral success of the conservative Law and Justice Party in the general elections on 25 October. Berlin would have preferred the Civic Platform to continue ruling the country, but it was clear that this was not a realistic option. And as any foreign comment on Polish domestic politics would only backfire, Berlin remained stoic and silent in the face of the election campaign and quietly considered how to adapt to the new circumstances.
Since Civic Platform came to power in 2005, Polish-German relations improved on almost every level, and economic ties are now closer than ever. Western Poland profits from its proximity to Germany, while more and more German entrepreneurs, customers and holiday-makers discover Poland. “Made in Poland” has become a synonym for quality in recent years.
In recent years Berlin and Warsaw have also been on the same page on many political issues. Both countries believed in market-liberalisation and competitiveness, both rejected plans of a transfer-union, and both adhered to rather conservative economic and fiscal policies. Especially during the euro crisis, many Germans wished that Poland were part of the euro zone in order to strengthen the “north-eastern” competitive camp. In defence policy, Berlin took Warsaw's quest for collective defence as a welcome counterweight to France's push for more engagement in Africa, and both abstained from involving themselves in the 2011 Libya operation. Germany always felt unease at the expeditionary agenda, however Berlin never satisfied the demands of the eastern member states regarding collective defence.
In a post-Ukraine conflict world, Berlin – and especially Merkel – needs Warsaw more than ever to keep Europe on the same page concerning sanctions. Warsaw is seen as one of the few countries that could mitigate and contain increasingly pro-Russian stances amongst the other Visegrád countries. Hence Berlin would like to retain the strategic relationship with Warsaw, but it is unclear how far the new government will re-orient the Polish foreign policy compass. Law and Justice is much more conservative than its predecessors when it comes to social matters, and economically more social-democratic. There are also certain anti-Ukrainian and unilateralist elements in the party. All these things could contribute toward an erosion of the practical foundation of the German-Polish partnership.
Then there is a debate on the constitutional “overhaul” or “Orbanisation” of Poland. Law and Justice wants to change the legal foundation of the public TV, the national bank, to curtail the independence of the constitutional court and so forth. The frequent outbursts made by Law and Justice supporters against “unpatriotic” compatriots raises fears that similar “Orbanist” media laws may follow. These are particularly worrisome for Germany. With the same agenda, Hungary could bend and sometimes break European law – and Europe unfortunately remained silent on this. However, while Europe can afford one small nationalist opportunist within the EU, the situation would change dramatically if a larger country like Poland were to take the same path. So far, Law and Justice lacks a constitutional majority to make many of the aforementioned changes a reality. But it could find collaborators amongst Kukiz new party or the agrarian party (Polskie Stronnictwo Ludowe, PSL). Still, one may ponder whether such radical plans will be able to win over a majority at all. Other parties know that the Polish electorate is not particularly enthusiastic about changing the constitution. Rather they demand adjustments to the Civic Platform’s social and economic policies.
Policymakers in Berlin are aware, that in such a politically charged debate and polarised political climate, any foreign comment will do more harm than good – and especially if it is based on the alarmist predictions of political opponents. There are a lot of uncertainties about the future direction of Polish politics. Berlin will judge the new government on its merits and actions, not on the political debate. The worst-case for Berlin would be an “Orbanist” Poland that isolates itself within the EU and perceives the German-Polish relation solely through the historic prism and its own identity politics. Hence, Berlin is searching for a positive agenda with which to engage the new government. Berlin remained open to debates on reinforcing NATO's eastern flank before the summit in Warsaw, and for Merkel more than anyone else, Poland will be important ally who can defend her course on Russia against the promoters of rapprochement towards Moscow. Sigmar Gabriel's visit to Moscow and the industrial sector’s renewed push for another north-stream pipeline illustrate how fast things may change in Berlin and that the chancellery’s course is anything but undisputed.
Much of the sustainability of Merkelism will depend on whether compromises can be reached on refugees. A double gridlock, in which Poland blocks refugees and a weakened Germany resumes Ostpolitik would be the worst possible outcome. To avoid this, both parties need to be flexible and ready for compromise. But is Law and Justice ready for compromise on any front after winning a landslide election? A hard-line, uncompromising, and predominantly emotional Polish position would be difficult to sell as a valid argument given the domestic German debate about its own foreign-policy direction. Such a Polish-German split would be the secret hope of the Russlandversteher in Berlin, who are eager to distance Germany from Warsaw and realign it with peaceable western Europe.
The visit of the new Polish president Andrzej Duda in Berlin was judged as a success, and he earned positive comments both from the media as from policy-makers. But he is part of a new and younger generation in Law and Justice, that is more sympathetic to the idea of Europe and the mechanisms of European policymaking than the previous generation. Only time will tell whether Duda and this new generation are in the driving seat of Polish politics.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.
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