Poland and Germany: How Close is too Close?

By Michal Baranowski, Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff

For hundreds of years, Poland suffered from an overbearing Germany that trampled on the rights of the Polish nation, occupied the country, and, at times, worked to extinguish the Polish nation-state entirely. No wonder that there is a residue of skepticism and caution in Poland when it comes to relations with its big neighbor to the west. A healthy distance and dose of hedging have long been the default position of the country’s foreign policy. Poland’s accession to the European Union has changed all that. Nearly eight years on, Poland is rephrasing its German question, and in a baffling way: how close is too close?

Last week, Poland consented to a European agreement that it did not like in the interest of keeping the continent together. European leaders had agreed on a fiscal compact, a treaty aimed at strengthening the fiscal discipline in the EU countries that choose to sign it, and set governing rules for the eurozone. Prime Minister Donald Tusk faced an uncomfortable choice. On one hand, Poland has declared itself a staunchly pro-European country. In his now-famous Berlin speech last year, Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski spoke of the need for a strong, united, and even federal union. On the other hand, the eurozone was potentially moving ahead without Poland. The plan shaping up ahead of the summit called for meetings of the 17 eurozone countries, excluding Poland from what is seen in Warsaw as a vital decision-making body of a changing EU. Consequently, Tusk threatened Poland might not sign the treaty if this mechanism was not changed.

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In Warsaw, eurozone summits are not simply seen as a crisis management mechanism for the euro, but as a nucleus of a smaller club in which most of the key decisions for the EU are made, some in areas beyond the single currency. France is the most active proponent of eurozone-only solutions, and a zero-sum game between France and Poland has developed around the question of a two-speed Europe. Warsaw fears that France wants to undo the EU’s eastern enlargement. Seen from Warsaw, inclusion is a core national interest; Poland did not join the European Union only to find itself sidelined.

The other eurozone members faced a dilemma of their own. No democratic theory stipulates that nonmembers ought to have voting rights in membership organizations. Since voting rights for nonmembers are out of the question, the group considered the PNV principle — “participate, not vote.” But even speaking rights would give nonmembers the opportunity to influence, and maybe even undermine, goals that member states deem essential to sustaining their common currency. Nonmembers should not benefit from the currency union while not contributing to it, and nonmembers should have an incentive to join. But strict exclusion of nonmembers is in nobody’s interest. Some nonmembers are really “not-yet-members.” They are, like Poland, candidate countries working to qualify and waiting for the right moment to join. They have a right to know what’s going on in the club they are aspiring to join. The more the eurozone coordinates to save its currency, the more it will make decisions that affect all 27 EU members. They might pertain to competitiveness, social systems, and taxes.

Keeping Poland in the cold is least of all in Germany’s interest. Poland is the most pro-European country outside the eurozone. Why alienate it? Last weekend, Germany got a taste of what that might mean when Sikorski warned that Germany should not even try to aspire to be a benevolent hegemon. Poland is Germany’s crucial ally for a more federal Europe and a power to help balance the less ambitious Brits and the more confederate French. Poland is essential in order to lead Central and Eastern Europe towards the eurozone and prevent Europe from splitting in two. It has rarely had a more central role in Europe and has never been a more pivotal partner of Germany.

In true European fashion, this led to a compromise, albeit an ugly one. The agreement allows non-eurozone countries to take part in the eurozone summits at least once a year, and whenever issues of competitiveness or the architecture of the eurozone are discussed. Additionally, Herman Van Rompoy, president of the European Council, assured that any summit of the euro 17 will be preceded by a meeting of all EU 27 member states.

An unhappy Tusk contends the agreement still establishes a decision-making format in which Poland does not have a vote, and frequently will not even be present at the deliberations. Nonetheless, Poland decided to join the other 24 signatories (the U.K. and the Czech Republic were the holdouts), marking yet another time that Poland chose “more Europe” when presented with a choice. The Europe Poland is choosing is less and less to its liking, but it is easier to influence the club from the inside than from the outside.

Despite a building relationship with Germany, Warsaw’s support of Berlin’s leadership in Europe is anything but unconditional: “Provided you [Germany] will include us in decision-making, Poland will support you,” Sikorski emphasized in his Berlin speech. Poland knows that it cannot always count on the unwavering support from its western neighbor, especially if Germany had to choose between Poland and France. Tusk’s goal now is to broaden Poland’s alliances within the eurozone, starting with Spain and Italy. Germany will have to earn Poland’s support.