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Germany, Poland And The Neighbors

Germany’s special relationship with Russia is over; with France it is in trouble, and with Poland it is just beginning. To see the new map of Europe, start with the numbers. Poland is in Germany’s top ten export partners. Russia is not. In the list of the top ten importers to Germany (but only thanks to oil and gas) Russia is at seventh place, ahead of Belgium, behind Britain. Overall, in foreign trade turnover, Russia squeaks ahead in tenth place at 80.5 billion Euros ($104.5 billion at current exchange rates), with Poland at 11th with 75.6 billion Euros ($98.4 billion). Add in the other three Visegrád countries (Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia), though, and Russia is dwarfed. The V4’s combined foreign trade turnover with Germany is 187 billion Euros ($243.3 billion).1

Trade alone does not determine geopolitics. But the rise of Poland, and its Central European neighbors, as a dependable and lucrative trading partner, blunts one of the biggest arguments of the pro-Russia lobby in Germany: greed. For most of the 1990s — indeed for some years after Angela Merkel became federal chancellor at the head of a coalition government in 2005 — Russia was seen as such a colossally tempting market for exports that many officials and politicians thought it best to stay quiet on other issues, such as human rights, or allies’ security interests.

The other big argument for a soft approach to the Kremlin was imports: that Russia was the only possible source of gas for German industry and households. That looks threadbare too. Liquefied natural gas (LNG) is now widely available on the international market. When America starts exporting gas (as it now seems likely), the world LNG supply will increase and Russia’s hold on Europe’s energy supply will weaken further. Another important and related change is that the European Union’s (EU) “third energy package” — a big liberalization and anti-monopoly move — has dealt a death blow to Gazprom’s business model: expensive gas, sold on a country-by-country basis, to pliant customers, via pipeline. Every element of that is now threatened or doomed. Despite widespread skepticism at the beginning of his term, the (German) energy commissioner, Gunther Oettinger, has run a formidably free-market shop.

These changes are now etched into the German world-view. So too is a distaste for the authoritarian policies of the Putin regime. As a result, for the first time since the era of Helmut Schmidt and Jimmy Carter in the late 1970s, Germany is now tougher on the Kremlin than the United States is.

That creates a space, and Poland has moved into it. The growth of Polish-German friendship was not inevitable. It required the end of the Kaczyński era in Polish politics, first with Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński’s defeat by the Civic Platform party (Platforma Obywatelska) in 2005, then with the tragic death of his twin brother President Lech Kaczyński in the Smolensk plane crash of April 2010.

Since then, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, his Oxford-educated Foreign Affairs Minister Radosław Sikorski and the low-key President Bronisław Komorowski, have had free rein to pursue their historic rapprochement with Germany.

Part of this involves close personal ties. In her youth in the “GDR” (the Soviet-occupied zone of Germany) Angela Merkel was a regular visitor to Communist-ruled Poland. She got into trouble for bringing home a postcard depicting the monument to the murdered striking workers of Gdansk. She instinctively sympathizes with the Polish feeling of powerlessness and foreign oppression. She likes Mr. Tusk: he speaks some German and recently taught her to pronounce “Kazmierczak” — which, it had just turned out, was her grandfather’s original surname, before he Germanized it to Kismar (her maiden name). Kazmierczak came from what was once Posen in imperial Germany and is now Poznan, a major Polish city. The news that Mrs. Merkel is one-quarter Polish resonated in an already warm relationship.

So too did the remarkable speech by Sikorski in Berlin in 2011, when he appealed to Germany for more leadership in dealing with the Euro-zone crisis. His words brought some Germans in the audience to tears.

I demand of Germany that, for your sake and for ours, you help [the Euro-zone] survive and prosper. You know full well that nobody else can do it. 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.

Terming Germany Europe’s “indispensable nation” he continued:

You may not fail to lead. Not dominate, but to lead in reform. Provided that you include us in decision making, Poland will support you.

Scope for friction abounds, of course. The million-plus Poles in Germany are not counted as a national minority, with the legal and bureaucratic privileges that would bring (the four official national minorities — Sorbs, Sinti and Roma, Danes and Friesens — together amount to less than 200,000). German courts — at least in Polish eyes — seem to favor German parents in mixed marriages when it comes to child custody.

The Second World War is a reliable bone of contention. A new German TV series Unsere Mütter, unsere Väter (Our Mothers, Our Fathers) portrays young Germans in occupied Poland during the war not just as two-dimensional monsters, but as real people. One plot twist involves a Jewish German who escapes from a concentration camp and joins a Polish underground resistance group — only to realize that their anti-Semitism means that he must conceal his Jewish identity. In a world where stereotypes are carefully guarded national treasures, this went down badly. Poland remembers the wartime resistance as a heroic struggle and the German occupiers as bestial. A conservative Polish paper, Uważam Rze, ran a cover story in which it said that Germans were now trying to portray themselves as the victims of the Second World War. It illustrated this with a picture of Mrs. Merkel in the striped cotton garb of a concentration-camp inmate.

That went down badly in Germany, of course. But such media spats no longer have political resonance. In the Kaczynski era, insulting, anti-Polish German media coverage brought formal diplomatic protests from Warsaw. Now people on both sides of the border shrug at editorial antics and get on with the business of state.

And this is the big question: what is that business? Traditionally, Germany’s most important partner in Europe has been France. Everyone else comes second. But that seems to be shifting, as a result of political and economic weakness there. Prime Minister Tusk is dependable. He does not require coaxing or charming. President François Hollande is in a state of permanent funk: a constant worry to other countries. Poland, whose economy kept growing throughout the crisis, is not a worry.

Poland is too small to be part of a duo with Germany. But it can be part of a trio with Germany and France. Polish involvement blunts the edge of suspicion (however unfair) that Germany is trying to dominate Europe. When Germany acts in unison (“arm in arm,” as the former Foreign Affairs Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher put it recently) with the two countries in Europe that suffered most grievously at its hands in the past, it reassures others too.

Nerves still jangle in small countries though. The idea that EU decision making is in the end a stitch-up between big countries and the bureaucrat in Brussels dies hard. Poland has done well in showing its Visegrád partners that good relations with Germany are a plus, not a minus, for the other Central European countries. It helps, of course, that their relations with Germany are generally good too. All the countries concerned are committed to working inside EU institutions, not against them. All are “rule-keepers” not “rule-breakers.”

The good outcome of the EU’s budget negotiations for the “cohesion countries” (the ones still needing money for modernization) shows that these relationships work on moderately difficult issues. But they have yet to be put to any really severe test. On the thorny question of the Hungarian government’s abuse of independent institutions, pressure on the free press and other perceived infringements of European norms, Poland and the other two Visegrád countries are silent; Germany has made some mild criticism and received some rather pungent talk from Hungary in return. Perhaps most importantly, the Polish-German reconciliation has yet to pass the test of a change in government. It is unlikely that any future German government would want to dump Poland for Russia. But how much of today’s friendly and constructive approach would survive if the fire-breathing Mr. Kaczyński, or someone like him, were back in power in Warsaw?

For now at least though, the Polish-German rapprochement is both commendable and encouraging. Just hope it lasts.


1 Statistics for 2012 are available here: Statistisches Bundesamt, Außenhande: Zusammenfassende Übersichten für den Außenhandel, March 2013. (In German)

By Edward Lucas

 Edward Lucas is a Senior Adjunct Fellow at CEPA and International Editor of The Economist. He has been covering the Central and Eastern European region since the mid-1980s.

Reprinted with permission from the Center for European Policy Analysis
This article was originally published by CEPA in the Central Europe Digest – June 5, 2013 edition.

The CED is a publication of the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA), a Washington, DC-based research institute devoted to the study of Central and Eastern Europe.