Merkel, Schulz and Poland

What can we expect post-September?

Jacqueline Westermann
22 March 2017

“A guided democracy à la Putin”, “a dangerous Putinisation of European politics”, “developments in Poland have coup character” – these words resonated again across Poland when Martin Schulz announced his candidacy for the Social Democratic Party (SPD) in this year’s German federal elections. Mind you, if any country where comparisons to Putin are truly hurtful, it is Poland, and the pain is compounded when voiced by a German.

Indeed, it was Schulz making those comments as the President of the European Parliament, alongside other members of the Parliament, on the most recent developments in Poland after the PiS-government had taken power in the fall of 2015. Specifically, the critique was directed at measures taken that had put a question mark behind the state of rule of law and freedom of press in Poland.

As was to be expected, reactions promptly followed. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Witold Waszczykowski, called the statement “unfounded, unjustified, scandalous”, but also Schulz’ colleagues in the EU raised eyebrows following the remarks; the German liberal Alexander Graf Lambsdorff, a vice-president of the Parliament, called it a “verbal killing spree”.

The fact is, since these statements from last year, the European politician Martin Schulz has been a constant thorn in the paw for the Polish government. Would the same be the case for a potential German chancellor Schulz?

In the past, the leader of the PiS party, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, has been known for his critiques leveled at the current chancellor Merkel. However, he has backpedalled significantly throughout the last couple of months, even announcing a continuation of Merkel’s chancellorship would be preferred in Warsaw as Schulz is too close to Russia and a left ideologue. Since the Brexit-referendum and the accompanied result that Poland will lose its main ally in the European Union – the UK – the Polish political elite has turned towards Berlin in effort to schmooze their western partners.

No coincidence there; Poland needs Germany as the biggest contributor to the European funds, of which Poland would also like to benefit from in the future. Additionally, support from the Germans throughout the Brexit negotiations is needed to secure the rights of Polish citizens in the UK after leaving the EU, as well as in continuing a strong stand against Russia. So too, the German government has realised that they are better off seeking dialogue and cooperation with its important ally and friend in the East, rather than speculating for new elections in Warsaw.

But now, Martin Schulz is the next Social Democrat trying to overtake Angela Merkel, who has been in power since 2005. Subsequent to Schulz’ announcement, the until recently under-preforming SPD has gained 10,000 new members and climbed back to over 30% in the polls; Schulz is also enjoying a popularity which rivals Merkel herself. While euphoria is spreading across the Federal Republic, the governments in Europe (if not across the world) are asking themselves, what a future under Chancellor Schulz could bring?

His platform has not officially been announced yet (expected in June); however, it has become clear that equality and reforms of the labour market will play a great role. Schulz is known as strongly supporting the EU; he supports EU-integration and is not disinclined towards an EU army. Concrete statements on foreign policy, or even direct plans for German-Polish relations, have not yet been made. Nevertheless, some revelations were notable from this past weekend’s speech.

The SPD members came together at a special party convention that left Schulz crowned as the party’s chairman – elected with 100% of the votes. His speech among many other things presented a small glimpse into what a potential Chancellor Schulz could really mean to German-Polish relations. Martin Schulz declared “his” SPD to be the strongest opponent to the enemies of freedom and democracy that one could imagine. In a plea for freedom, he names Poland in the same breath with Hungary and Turkey as examples in Europe demonstrating attempts to “turn back the wheel of freedom” by suppressing the media, the opposition and the free expression of arts and culture.

This is in sharp contrast to the ideas expressed by the new Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel (SPD), in a recent visit where he stated that the German-Polish relations have never been as great and close as they are now. This was before both Schulz’s speech this past weekend and the Polish government’s debacle nominating their own candidate against fellow countryman Donald Tusk for the next term of European Council President. The Polish government went as far as to denounce Tusk as a “German candidate”, who would work in favour of German and against Polish interests in the EU. The prior conciliatory tones towards the German government amid the state visit in February 2017, which had many hoping for a “normalisation” of relations, have not helped with this calamitous attempt to replace Tusk.

Much will not only depend on who will be the chancellor after September but also which coalition will be in power. A continuation of the “great coalition”, which is a grouping of the conservative parties CDU and CSU with the social democrats of the SPD, is not anticipated by anyone. A “great coalition” used to be an exception during the early years of the federal republic; by now, however, it is far from being a “no-go” – the federal government has opted for it more than once, and many federal states have continued to form red-black or black-red governments. This is usually a time of standstill, where unifying ideas are focused on but controversial debates on clashing policy visions are rare.

In this setting, political reform is almost impossible. Throughout the last few decades, coalition governments have also triggered increased support for smaller parties or movements on the political fringes. During the late 1960s the External Parliamentary Opposition was shaped and later disembogued into the Green Party; ten years ago, the Pirate Party was popular as an alternative to the established parties, and nowadays the far-right AfD is able to attract people dissatisfied with the political elite, particularly the decisions made by the government during the last few years.

Something new and particularly popular among some social democrats – who are disappointed about their junior position within the coalition – would be a grouping of the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party, referred to as ‘R2G’ (red-red-green). Martin Schulz attended roundtable meetings between the heads and members of respected parties, where potentials and intentions were sounded out. The fact is that an ‘R2G’-coalition would have at least two parties (several members of SPD if not the entire Left Party) being seen as pro-Russian and against sanctions. This most certainly would be observed unfavourably by Germany’s eastern neighbours. A continuation of the foreign policy, especially with involvement of the Left Party seems very hard to imagine at the moment, if not even impossible. Their main approach to foreign policy is best summarised with: anti-military and anti-NATO. Seeing Germany’s undoubted commitment to the alliance, which has been voiced stronger than ever before lately, it is hard to believe the three parties could find a compromise and therefore a functioning basis for ‘R2G’.

An involvement – in whichever combination – of the liberal FDP would be the only one where a more direct criticism of the Polish government might be imaginable. While it can be expected that the German government will continue to rely on European politicians as well as European mechanisms to react to developments within member states, the FDP calls itself the ‘freedom party’. Liberties and freedoms are the most important values to its members, and it is unclear, however possible, that members would speak out directly. The party has not been a part of the parliament during the last legislative period, its return after the elections however seems to be certain.

So, what is to be expected from the next government for the German-Polish relations?

“If there was one word to describe Germany’s approach on Europe, it would be continuity. So far, most federal governments have followed consecutively the same values and interests as their predecessors. I therefore do not expect a potential Chancellor Schulz to change the course of Germany’s foreign policy in general, nor in regards to the Polish-German relations”, commented Anna-Lena Kirch, a research assistant at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, who focusses on German foreign policy.

Similar expectations are voiced in circles associated with the SPD: Not only would the German foreign policy be dominated by continuity but also Martin Schulz himself stands for it, having demonstrated commitment to the same values and beliefs throughout his political career. Furthermore, Schulz has been a member of the party’s executive committee since 1999 – he has therefore supported all decisions taken, including choices throughout government participation of the party. However, the speech from the most recent weekend has shown that Martin Schulz is not shy in voicing his opinion.

It can be expected that unless major events take place in both governments and countries, German-Polish relations are set to continue in their current form. They might have been more fruitful in previous years, but they are also able to look back on successful cooperation, overcoming the darkest of chapters possible between neighbouring countries.

Jacqueline Westermann works with the Warsaw office of The German Marshall Fund of the United States. She received her MA degree in Peace and Conflict Studies from the University of St Andrews, UK, and a BA in Political Science and Law from the University of Muenster, Germany. She also writes for the Moscow German Newspaper and her own blog, The PACT Online.