2 – Poland VS Germany. Skin in the game
German Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Poland on February 7 seeking to tempt Warsaw back into the EU fold, continuing a merry-go-round of geopolitical meetings as global leaders seek to make sense or hay from the chaos in Washington D.C.
The trip follows the latest get together by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban with Russia’s President Putin. Moscow has been emboldened by Donald Trump’s hints of scrapping sanctions and Nato activities in Central & Eastern Europe; Orban by the populist and nationalist messages coming from the White House.
“Adopting a covenant in Europe involves presenting where we are going; whether we have a common aim or whether each country has its own aim,” the German leader said at a joint press conference with Szydlo.
Getting Poland’s awkward conservatives to clamber back aboard the EU bandwagon would be a tangible success. However, she found Warsaw’s growing isolation has not yet pushed it to let up on demands for reform of a bloc that is so vulnerable right now.
That provoked some chilly scenes. “Poland and Germany… have a huge role to play in the changes that are taking place in the Union,” Szydlo said, claiming Warsaw is keen for greater cooperation with its neighbour.
Merkel gave that short shrift, warning that in light of “some ideas that go in the direction of treaty change, I will put forward the argument that we should proceed very cautiously”.
Yet, as was shown in September at the first EU summit following the Brexit vote, neither Poland nor erstwhile partner in “counter cultural revolution” Hungary are about to lead any reform. The demands that “someone” should shake up the EU are useful for the domestic audience to show PiS is engaged internationally and fighting the Brussels bogeyman.
In reality, Kaczynski appears to have little interest in the outside world. He does not travel abroad. He simply wants the EU to leave him alone to rule Poland how he wishes.
The crux there is the EU’s challenge to what it says are the Polish government’s undermining of the rule of law and democracy. Brussels has demanded changes to the constitutional court and media regulation be reversed, but has largely shown it is toothless in the face of open hostility from Warsaw.
- The German chancellor’s visit came just ahead of the latest EU deadline of February 21 for action. In public at least, Merkel has been careful not to venture into that mess, leaving Brussels to lead the challenge. However, the topic was certainly on the agenda behind the scenes.
- The chancellor reminisced over the role played by Solidarity in bringing down communism in Central Europe. “From this time we know how important plural societies are, how important an independent judiciary and independent media are,” Merkel said.
The European Commission is searching for a route out of a conundrum that has is hugely damaging to its credibility. Vice-President Jyrki Katainen was the latest to threaten to use Article 7 – the “nuclear option” of stripping Poland’s voting rights – in early February. Brussels is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and could yet decide to test the bromance and Hungary’s pledge to veto any such move.
Yet that’s a route fraught with risk. Merkel instead presumably sought to try yet again to convince Kaczynski to “follow the basic values on which the whole EU and Europe has been built”, as Katainen put it to Reuters ahead of the visit.
However, that is likely a bridge too far, suggests Popielawska. “It would be very difficult for PiS to implement the EU’s demands,” the analyst remarks. “Kaczynski would have to dismantle the basis of his whole political project in Poland.”
It wasn’t all confrontation, however. Points of agreement were also stressed. Economic cooperation between the two countries was played up, with trade between the two countries likely passing the €100bn threshold for the first time in 2016.
Merkel is savvy enough also to understand Poland’s most telling pressure point. She made sure to stress that when it comes to defence, Berlin and Warsaw share “very common views”.
As the German chancellor spoke, her defence minister was delivering German troops to Lithuania, where they will lead a Nato battle group as part of the Barack Obama administration’s commitment to bolster forces in the region to deter Russian aggression.
- Sharing Warsaw’s nervousness over suggestions Nato could be obsolete, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite said the German battalion arrives [at] the right place and at the right time”, according to Reuters. Von der Leyen said Europe must boost military cooperation and solve its own problems.
- Whether that means Berlin welcomes Kaczynski’s recent call for Europe to adopt its own independent nuclear umbrella – based on the French arsenal, which already covers Germany – to back up what suddenly appears an unreliable US deterrent is another matter.
- Yet Poland’s growing need for geopolitical support certainly looks to be nudging Kaczynski from his former stance, in which he has accused Germany of seeking to dominate the EU. The caricatures of German politicians dressed in Nazi uniforms that adorned front pages in Poland last year were nowhere to be seen when Merkel arrived.
Whether Trump, Brexit and Orban’s Russian overtures will push him back from his efforts to undermine Brussels remains a big question, however. But he will have found it hard to argue with the sentiment expressed by perhaps his arch-nemesis earlier this week.
“The change in Washington puts the European Union in a difficult situation; with the new administration seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy,” Tusk wrote to EU leaders in a letter urging cooperation.
“All European Union leaders face a choice,” wrote Judy Dempsy at Carnegie Europe in early February. “They either allow the United States and Russia to divide the bloc—and even destabilise it—or they realise that they have to complete a project begun sixty years ago in Rome.”
Kaczynski may not be ready to accept that rather dramatic claim. But his unusually warm demeanour towards his German guest suggests he realises all-out confrontation with the EU may not be the wisest course in the current climate.
“There was a good atmosphere,” Kaczynski told reporters after his meeting with the chancellor, to whom he has offered clear support in her upcoming bid for a fourth term leading Germany. “My sense is that today’s visit will bring good results.”
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