Poles and Germans in United Europe

From Beata Jurkowicz (PhD), German Historical Institute Warsaw

Although Angela Merkel announced a few years ago that during the elections held on 26th September she would not seek re-election as Chancellor, for most journalists and reporters it is hard to imagine a traditional “family photo” taken at the end of the European Council without Merkel.

The summit in October will probably be the last one that Angela Merkel attends. Depending on the progress made during coalition negotiations at the summit in December, she will soon presumably be replaced by Olaf Scholz, the current Deputy Chancellor and winner of the Bundestag election.

Mateusz Morawiecki and Angela Merkel at the European Council in Brussels, 22nd October, 2021
© European Union
https://newsroom.consilium.europa.eu/events/20211022-european-council-october-2021-day-2/null/125784

Adopting a political perspective, it is possible to say that during the recent years Polish-German relations have gone sour. The questioning by the Polish government of the principles on which the EU stands, especially regarding rule of law, disagreement over EU climate policy, as well as the German and Russian construction of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline are just a few examples of the contentious issues in both countries’ bilateral relations.

During Angela Merkel’s farewell visit to Warsaw, President Andrzej Duda would not meet her. Moreover, during the 30th anniversary of the signing of the Polish–German Treaty of Good Neighbourship and Friendly Cooperation, the traditional joint meeting of the Polish and German governments did not take place. However, despite the difficult relations, there exist close contacts between both societies and there is also cultural exchange. Germany is also Poland’s most important commercial partner, with Poland being in 5th place among Germany’s biggest commercial partners.1

According to the Polish-German Barometer, a project conducted jointly for 20 years by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Germany and the Institute of Public Affairs in Poland, 65% Poles and 57% Germans rate the bilateral relations as good or fairly good.2 In 2004, Poland became a beneficiary of EU programmes; in 2007, Poland became a member of the Schengen Area; finally, since 2011, there have been no restrictions for Poles in taking up employment in Germany.
 
Angela Merkel’s chancellorship (since 2005) almost coincides with the period during which Poland has been a member of the EU (since 2004). As well as the positive changes to the Polish-German relations described above, the European integration has a positive influence on Poles’ standard of living. Thanks to numerous infrastructure investments, there has been a significant improvement in the quality and a marked increase in the number of roads, new jobs have been generated, and new public buildings have been erected. However, Eurosceptics, who are not very common in Poland despite the fact that the parties that have been in power for the last six years are Eurosceptic, are not convinced by such hard data. Nonetheless, according to the opinion poll conducted in September by OKO.press and “Gazeta Wyborcza” daily, 88% of those interviewed want Poland to remain in the EU. Moreover, when asked if they want Poland to leave the EU, as many as 89% Law and Justice voters replied negatively (50% gave a decisive “no”).
 
It should be observed that Polish Euroscepticism is anti-German in character. Those who are against Poland’s membership in the EU are also against Poland’s increasing its cooperation with Germany. They perceive Poland’s European integration as a process of Poland’s gradual subordination to Germany’s hegemony in the EU.

During the refugee crisis of 2015, when a decision was taken regarding the transfer to individual EU member states of the refugees arriving in the EU (there were parliamentary elections in Poland at that time), the Law and Justice party, the parliamentary opposition then, tried to convince Poles that it was the German Chancellor who was responsible for the decision, trying to send immigrants to Poland. Consequently, an argument emerged in public debate in Poland that Germany was trying to impose its will on the remaining EU member states.

Furthermore, Donald Tusk, Polish prime minister between 2007 and 2014 and President of the European Council from 2014 to 2019, who befriended Angela Merkel, was described by his political opponents in Poland as “Merkel’s man”. When he became the President of the European Council, he was maliciously asked whether he would serve the interests of Warsaw of those of Berlin. However, the President of the European Council must represent the interests of the whole European Union.

When the question of the violation of rule of law by the ruling Law and Justice party was on the EU agenda, the Eurosceptic supporters of this party stated that Germany would not lecture Poland – at that time the President of the European Parliament was Martin Schulz, a German social-democratic politician, who emphasised the importance of the EU values – since they had no moral right to do so due to the atrocities they had committed in Poland during the Second World War. When the national elections in Poland were won by the Law and Justice party, opinions were voiced that Poland should seek war reparations from Germany. Even though this requirement is controversial within the German parties3it has been accepted and supported by Eurosceptics in Poland.

In 2020, when there were negotiations in the EU concerning the EU 2021–2027 budget, the Polish government announced that they would veto the budget. Eventually, when they withdrew from this declaration, the Eurosceptics accused Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki of acting at Angela Merkel’s bidding. At that time, Germany was holding the presidency; therefore, it was obvious that they intended to pass the budget for the period of the next seven years.

Undoubtedly, Angela Merkel tried to defuse tensions between Warsaw and Brussels as well as Warsaw and Berlin. This was so due to her pragmatic character as well as her biography and understanding for the countries that had been members of the former Eastern bloc. At this point a question should be asked as to whether her successor will have so much patience. Should Olaf Scholz become her successor, as a social democrat he would at least be in the tradition of the new Ostpolitik and thus have a special responsibility to Germany’s eastern neighbour.

The new federal government will obviously try to have as good relations with Poland as it is possible and to increase the cooperation within the framework of the EU. However, the current tensions might increase. It is likely that there will be disagreements over EU climate policy and the observance of rule of law in Poland. Regarding the latter, the existing conflict is between the Polish government and the European Commission, who is the guardian of the EU treaties, but who is also headed by Ursula von der Leyen, a German politician. For Polish Eurosceptics, who regard EU institutions as fora for serving German interests, this will be an argument proving the “German character” of the EU.

Summing up it should be emphasised that many Poles do not perceive Germany’s activity in the EU in a negative way. According to the Polish-German Barometer that was mentioned above, 49% Poles have a positive opinion about Germany’s European policy; they believe that it fosters cooperation in Europe. However, it remains to be seen how this will change in the future with a new German federal government.

  1. https://wits.worldbank.org/CountryProfile/en/Country/POL/Year/LTST/TradeFlow/EXPIMP. Accessed on 20th Oct ‘21. []
  2. Körber Stiftung, Institute of Public Affairs, Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (2018).
    Results of the Polish-German Barometer.
    Hamburg/Warsaw. Retrieved from: https://www.koerber-stiftung.de/fileadmin/user_upload/koerber-stiftung/redaktion/fokusthema_der-wert-europas/pdf/2018/deutsch-polnisches-barometer/PL-DE-Barometer-2018_brochure_EN.pdf. Accessed on 20th Oct ‘21. []
  3. See: https://www.spiegel.de/politik/deutschland/polen-linke-unterstuetzt-gruenen-vorschlag-zu-reparationszahlungen-a-9fff4364-9633-4473-ab40-5e4228ec2151. Accessed on 20th Oct ‘21. []

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