1 – 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.
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- Poland enjoys the idea of reclaiming the power it complains has been transferred to Brussels under German auspices also, as de facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski made clear when sealing a ‘bromance’ with Orban and declaring a “counter cultural revolution” against the EU last year.
- However, the Hungarian leader’s bear cuddle is the stuff of nightmares for Warsaw, especially as Budapest has recently repeated its questioning of EU sanctions against Russia.
- It’s not the only international link that Poland’s spiky PiS government is eyeing nervously. The doubt cast by Trump over Nato’s role in Europe has kept a lid on praise for the new US presidency, and puts Poland’s traditional Atlanticist stance in question.
- The UK has long been courted as the major EU member state to offer support to Warsaw’s interests and counterbalance Berlin; however Britain is on its way out of the bloc.
Since the Brexit vote, the rest of the Visegrad region – Slovakia, and the Czech Republic in particular – have made it plain they would prefer to hitch their wagon to Germany, on whose economy they are hugely dependent, than to a Polish-Hungarian axis of the awkward.
Indeed, as Merkel was in her meetings with the reclusive Polish leader, the Czech Republic was flagging up its support of one of her main allies. Kaczynski has said Warsaw will not support bitter rival Donald Tusk as president of the EU Council at elections in March; Czech sources reiterated the same day that Prague will do all it can to secure a second term in Brussels for the former Polish PM.
Exposed by Trump’s folding of the Nato umbrella, Poland’s somewhat paranoid Russophobes are likely to seek additional shelter. Warsaw will not have missed Moscow’s test of the new US administration. The conflict in eastern Ukraine sparked back into life less than two weeks after he arrived in the White House.
Polish officials are reported to be seeking to understand how far east Nato’s commitment will extend in Europe under Trump. Meanwhile, a European defence force has been talked up by Poland in recent weeks, and is likely to be pushed harder by Warsaw. Any hope Kaczynski has of moving that slow process forwards would clearly require goodwill from Berlin and Brussels.
It was perhaps no coincidence that Merkel timed her visit to fall shortly ahead of a meeting of Nato defence ministers and the Munich Security Conference. German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen will meet the new US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis in Washington on February 10.
Skin in the game
German leverage is significant in other ways as well. The country is by far the largest investor in Poland and Germany is the largest contributor to EU structural funds, of which Poland stands to gain over €100bn to the end of the decade. Around 2mn Poles work in the neighbouring country and send back remittances.
“It is very important for the Polish economy that German companies are involved here,” said Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo when she appeared at a joint press conference with Merkel.
While there are questions over Berlin’s approach to Russia’s Nord Stream II gas pipeline plan, Merkel is perhaps the most important supporter of EU sanctions against Moscow, which are due for another vote in March.
Add in the nervousness in Warsaw that the EU may now be the only power at Poland’s back against potential Russian aggression and it’s hard to understand why it was Merkel that had to travel to visit Kaczynski, rather than the other way around.
Yet the German chancellor has skin in the game also. She faces elections later this year, and the populist backlash against her open door policy for refugees will likely make that her toughest domestic political challenge yet. However, Merkel’s has made preserving the EU in the face of the challenges piling up a personal mission, and was on the campaign trail.
“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.
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