What is the Future for German-Polish Relations

The future trajectories of the relationship depend first and foremost on the domestic political situation in both countries but in Poland in particular

Marcin Zaborowski
27 November 2017

Relations between Warsaw and Berlin are amongst the most crucial, and historically-burdened, bilateral entanglements in the world. The German-Polish historical rapprochement that was put in motion in 1989 has been one of the pillars of European order that has proved indispensable to the stability of Central and Eastern Europe. Yet, this pillar was considerably weakened when Poland, in 2015, elected a populist government; since then, tensions have only risen and now the cooperation between the two countries is in a state of crisis.

From 1989 to 2017, there have been three distinctive periods of the German-Polish relationship. The first period, between 1989 and 2007, was dominated by historical reconciliation and trying to reaffirm the relationship on new grounds, most notably through the Eastern enlargement of the EU. The subsequent eight years, ending in 2015, were focused on developing pragmatic projects on the basis of previously established strategic congruence. Poland’s status was growing whilst Germany acquired a like-minded ally in the EU. However, since 2015, the relationship has been going through a dramatic regress.

The historical questions – so successfully addressed between 1989 and 2007 – have been vengefully resurrected and abused for domestic purposes. Pragmatic projects, joint initiatives in countries formerly under Soviet influence (i.e. Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova), were put on hold as Warsaw is focused on playing victim. The needy and demanding postures adopted by Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party are also having their negative effect on cooperation in the civil society, which is coming to a halt. Recently, Warsaw started ramping up the war-reparation rhetoric, which reopened a great deal of historical wounds that are beginning to affect societal perceptions of Germany in Poland.

The future trajectories of the relationship depend first and foremost on the domestic political situation in both countries but in Poland in particular. PiS has clearly identified the anti-German rhetoric as a splinter issue that allows it to consolidate its base, and PiS is an intensely domestically-focused party. As long as it believes that stirring up anti-German sentiments will help it to get re-elected, it will continue to play this card, despite the obvious strategic and geo-political costs for Poland. Hence, if PiS remains in power and is re-elected in 2019, Polish-German relations will begin sliding towards a deeper crisis despite the conscious restraint demonstrated by Chancellor Merkel.

In addition to anti-German sentiments, PiS will drive Poland towards an ever-greater conflict with the EU. The EU will continue to object to those projects of PiS that are undermining domestic freedoms such as free media and independence of the judiciary. This may motivate Germany further to focus European integration on the eurozone with Poland being effectively marginalised with no meaningful influence in the EU. Should this become the case, Warsaw may start heading towards a “great EU egress”.

If PiS loses the 2019 elections with the combined help of centrist and liberal forces, there is a good chance that the relationship will return to the pragmatic footing displayed between 2007-2015. However, it is unlikely that Poland’s position will return to the same privileged space it occupied during those years. EU integration will no doubt continue coalescing in the next few years, and the EU will not wait for Warsaw. Hence, even if Poland will want to return to the European mainstream, it will not be possible; it will be, at best, playing catch-up with the rest of the EU rather than being a co-architect of the new EU. Moreover, Warsaw will be facing the issue of adopting the euro, which will be extremely difficult for domestic reasons. Whilst between 2007-2015 Warsaw was able to basically dodge the question, no such option will be viable without major consequences in the future. Going down the path of joining the eurozone will be domestically very divisive and rife with risks; staying out of the eurozone will mean progressive marginalisation.

Taking a five-year perspective, the odds are that the relationship will be bumpy at best. If PiS stays in power in Poland and Germany is ruled by a coalition of whichever stripes, the relationship will further deteriorate. If PiS is out and replaced by a pro-European option, then Warsaw will be engaged in catching up with its neighbours, which will certainly be frustrating, and worse, Germany’s attention is likely to have been diverted somewhere else by this point.

At the time of writing, it is unclear yet what coalition will rule Germany and whether there will be new elections to the Bundestag. Traditionally, Poland has had better relations with the CDU than with the SPD that tended to be more sympathetic to Moscow’s perspective. A rather unlikely, at this point, inclusion of the Greens, who are opposed to NordStream2 project, would have been good news for Warsaw.

Still, the domestic make-up in Poland and the likely continuing domination of PiS is such that the anti-German rants are likely to be continued from Warsaw regardless of any favourable policies that could be adopted by Berlin nor how much German restraint is shown. The single factor that could have some moderating impact on PiS is the United States since PiS remains a pro-American party, even though in a Cold War kind of way. The election of Donald Trump, who never hid his sceptical position towards the EU and who has been critical of Germany, emboldened PiS’s reticence towards its immediate neighbour and the EU. If Trump is not re-elected in 2020 and PiS is still in power in Poland, PiS may decide in favour of moderating its tone towards America’s key European ally.

When considering a ten-year perspective, the prospects for this relationship seem brighter. Political parties in both countries will go through a generational change and the appeal of beating the electorate with historical questions will simply lose its appeal for biological reasons, even though some Polish youth appear more conservative than their parents. The strategic imperative for continuing rapprochement and close cooperation between Warsaw and Berlin is a very obvious one. It defined the relationship in far less favourable conditions in 1989, and it is likely to take a central place again, especially once the appeal of victimhood wears off in Poland. However, one can never assume that rational choices will prevail in politics. In Europe, they have been promoted by an existence of strong transatlantic relationship and America’s engagement in European affairs. 28 years after the end of the Cold War, European stability continues to be heavily influenced by the developments in Washington.

Marcin Zaborowski is Senior Associate at Visegrad Insight.

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