Merkel Broke the Ice But the recent thaw in German-Polish relations is only a beginning - By Klaus Bachmann
After Chancellor Angela Merkel's March visit to Poland, much of the recent acrimony in the relationship between Berlin and Warsaw has dissipated.
The most noticeable improvement was atmospheric. The pictures of President Lech Kaczynski and Merkel strolling with their spouses in the icy wind of Jurata, a Polish resort on the Baltic coast, left the impression of an easygoing, informal meeting. The image stood in odd contrast to the frosty words that Kaczynski and his brother Jaroslaw, who is Poland's prime minister, normally use when referring to Germany and the European Union.
The two brothers swept to power on a wave of public apprehension, mistrust and corruption hysteria. They have since proceeded to throw into question everything that the consensus in the Polish foreign policy establishment once upheld: from the country's treaties with Germany during reunification to the belief, shared by 80 percent of the Polish population, that Warsaw's accession to both NATO and the EU were enormous successes for Poland.
Unfortunately for Merkel, her predecessor Gerhard Schröder had alienated Poland's government and most of the people shortly before leaving office. By signing agreements with Russia for the construction of an underwater gas pipeline to Germany, he unleashed a wave of indignation.
Even before, the Poles felt snubbed by the decision of the EU's Constitutional Convention to reduce the number of Polish votes in the European Council. In Poland, all parties agree that the country's strong hand of 27 votes within the Council, nearly equal to the 29 votes each of Germany, Britain, France and Italy, had been the result of the spirited negotiating of Jerzy Buzek and his government at the 2002 EU summit in Nice. As president of the EU Constitutional Convention, Valery Giscard d'Estaing presented Poland with a fait accompli three years later when he cut down the country's voting strength while restoring the pre-eminence of France and Germany. Although difficult for Western Europeans to understand, this sense of having been cold-shouldered and cheated by the big EU states is the main motivation for Warsaw's eurosceptic stance.
Merkel managed to alleviate the earlier hostility. For two days, Warsaw's new foreign policy elite felt taken seriously by its neighbor. The Chancellor allowed plenty of time for her visit. Significantly, she met for hours in private with President Kaczynski, the outsider, who has always been able to spin his lack of diplomatic experience and insecure manner on the international stage as patriotism.
Merkel said little that was new during her tour. She pledged not to support a private organization in Germany preparing to press restitution claims against Poland at the European Court of Human Rights. She also assured her Polish interlocutors that Germany would never distort its history or trivialize the Third Reich.
But the Chancellor did not succeed completely to lay to rest Polish doubts about Germany. With Jaroslaw Kaczynski, who is in charge of foreign policy along with his presidential brother, she met for only 30 minutes. After their meeting, he flew off to Denmark, another country known for its distrust of the EU.
Merkel also declared her intention to let NATO deal with U.S. plans to deploy a missile defense system in Poland and the Czech Republic. This did not go down too well with her hosts. In Warsaw, the issue of stationing U.S. anti-ballistic missiles on Polish territory is regarded as a national security matter that brooks no outside interference. Negotiating with the Americans, the Poles are convinced, will bring concrete results, while the Europeans would simply talk the project to death, said one senior Polish official.
Also President Kaczynski agreed to make the draft EU constitution the foundation for future talks on European institutions. Yet the president and the Polish government also knew that demands to completely renegotiate the constitutional treaty would lead to Poland's complete isolation within the EU, as would the attempt to rescue the Treaty of Nice's system of vote-weighting.
The big problem facing the governing twins and their foreign minister, Anna Fotyga, is that they have yet been unable to propose a viable alternative to the EU constitution's system of qualified majority voting. That's why many observers suspect Warsaw will eventually link its support for qualified majority voting and Poland's weakened position to the strongest possible wording that ensures EU solidarity with Poland in case Russia suddenly cuts off energy supplies.
Even if detailed agreements on these sensitive issues had been reached in Jurata, none could have been made public because they all require continued negotiations with the other EU states. Therefore, the good news from Jurata was not that Poland's tensions with Germany and Europe have finally been settled but simply that the details of their resolution have been postponed - in an atmosphere that's no longer as frigid as it used to be.
- Klaus Bachmann is a professor of political science at the University of Warsaw and a regular contributor to various Polish and German media.