The Polish-German Tandem

By Andrzej Turkowski

On November 8, the Polish and German foreign ministers, Radoslaw Sikorski and Guido Westerwelle, issued a joint letter to EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton and representatives of other member states calling on the EU to revamp its relationship with Russia. While hard to imagine just a few years ago, the joint penning of the letter represents a milestone in the two countries’ common policy toward Moscow.

Although the initiative reflects one of the most interesting trends inside the EU—Polish and German cooperation—with Europe immersed in economic crisis, it didn’t get much media coverage. But if this new Polish-German tandem should prove to be well balanced and lasting, it would certainly reshape politics inside EU, as well as the union’s foreign policy toward its Eastern neighbors. Close cooperation between Warsaw and Berlin would bring the EU nearer to a more coherent and thus more effective policy toward Russia and would make Moscow less inclined to base its “European policy” on bilateral relationships. Furthermore, such a policy—reflecting Central European states’ sensitivities—would be more reflective of internal problems in the Russian political system and Moscow’s policy toward its neighbors.

There is also the prospect of Polish-German cooperation within the EU. In 2010, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who strongly backs further European integration, announced Poland’s support for changes to the EU treaties introduced by Germany. Those changes included the possibility of controlled bankruptcy, greater cohesion on fiscal policy, and the institution of a permanent bailout fund. Still, though Poland opposes moves that would sharply divide the EU and harm “European unity,” its support for Berlin’s stance is not unconditional.

Warsaw and Berlin have a common interest in pushing ahead with European integration, but it is not yet clear if Germany sees this process as entailing the inclusion of Poland and others in the eurozone. Poland, however, is interested in getting closer to the eurozone. Thus, to make close cooperation a reality, Germany must support keeping the “EU core” open to non-eurozone members who fulfill the necessary requirements. Germany must reject French proposals for what the Economist called “an exclusivist, protectionist euro zone that seeks to detach itself from the rest of the European Union.” Warsaw, for its part, should promptly declare a concrete schedule for euro adoption. That would both confirm its position in shaping the EU’s future and strengthening the eurozone.

The November 8 German-Polish letter notes that Russia, given its history, culture, and geography, belongs to the “European family of nations” and discusses ways to bring Russia and the EU closer together. With the EU’s help, the ministers go on, Russia should find an “adequate place in a democratic Europe of shared freedom and shared prosperity.” Westerwelle and Sikorski write that the EU should continue to support Russia’s economic and political modernization, underlining Brussels’s support for Moscow’s membership in the World Trade Organization. The letter even mentions the prospect of a common free trade zone and proposes making it easier for students and academics to travel to the EU from Russia, including allowing Russian students to participate in the Erasmus and Erasmus Mundus programs.

However, the ministers call on the EU to demand that Moscow meet its obligations and promises concerning respect for the rule of law, human rights, media freedom, and democratic values. The ministers write that Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev’s “swapping of posts” is “not encouraging,” but despite criticisms, they argue that the EU should “stay the course to intensify the EU’s relationship with Russia and to overcome political and economic lethargy.” Sikorski and Westerwelle point out that Moscow must act predictably as a reliable partner on security issues such as nonproliferation, combating terrorism, and resolving Middle East conflicts, stressing the need for a stable energy relationship. “Energy should not be used for political ends,” the ministers caution.

The letter was sent on the same day as the ceremonial opening of the Nord Stream natural gas pipeline, which stretches from western Russia to northern Germany. Certainly, the date was chosen deliberately. For many years, the Baltic pipeline, planning for which began in 1997, has been a source of Polish anxiety and mistrust of Germany’s close relations with Russia. The agreement dredged up historical clichés about deals made behind Warsaw’s back, with Sikorski comparing the pipeline to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski describing it as a project standing in contradiction to EU’s energy solidarity.

As a result, soon after Prime Minister Tusk’s cabinet took power in 2007, Warsaw changed its approach to foreign policy, focusing instead on deeper integration within the EU in order to stay close to Europe’s decision making center, on modernizing its economy, and winning support among European countries for Poland’s preferred Eastern policy.

Apart from construction of the Nord Stream pipeline, the 2008 financial crisis accelerated the reorientation of Warsaw’s foreign policy. The new government acknowledged that since nearly 80 percent of Polish exports go to European Union states, Poland’s main economic interests are indeed in Brussels. As a prosperous future is only possible if Poland is well integrated with a prosperous EU, it is necessary for Warsaw to focus on bolstering its position in Brussels, even if that means adjusting its more ambitious Eastern policy goals. Therefore, Poland worked to move closer to Germany while making efforts to normalize its relations with Russia, in large part attempting to dispose of its “Russophobe” image, which in the past has weakened its position within EU.

Consequently, Warsaw no longer hopes to accelerate modernization and democratization processes to its east through building an anti-Russian coalition and seeking support for this agenda in the United States, among Central European EU members, and in supranational EU bodies—mainly the European Commission and the European Parliament. Poland has also adopted a more pragmatic attitude toward Ukraine and Georgia, in contrast to earlier ideologically focused policies. Polish policymakers have been less vocal in their insistence that Ukraine favor the EU over Russia. And despite Poland’s strong support for Georgia’s territorial integrity, Tbilisi’s accession to NATO is no longer a foreign policy priority.

Berlin’s stance has also been revised since 2005, helping to facilitate Warsaw’s foreign policy reorientation toward Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose approach toward Russia differs from that of her predecessor, Gerhard Schroeder, was responsible for the change. Unlike Schroeder, who saw Germany’s partnership with Moscow as a tool to counterbalance American primacy, Merkel values close relations with the United States. And under Chancellor Merkel, Germany is more willing to get tough with Russia on certain issues. As an “ossie” (a German born in Communist East Germany) with firsthand experience of life under Soviet domination, Merkel does not ignore the issues of human rights and democratic development. In recent talks in Berlin, German President Christian Wulff rebuffed Russian president Dmitry Medvedev’s proposal to do away with the visa requirement for travel between the EU and Russia. Though he said the two sides should work together on creating such a policy, he added that first Russia needs to make progress on the issues of freedom of the press, the fight against corruption, political pluralism, and human rights. Chancellor Merkel is also aware of the growing influence of the “new” EU members from Eastern and Central Europe and tends to take their anxieties into consideration when dealing with Moscow.
Since assuming the office of foreign affairs minister, Sikorski has developed particularly good relations with former German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Together, the two politicians traveled to Ukraine hoping to soothe an inter–“Orange camp” conflict between then Ukrainian President Viktor Yuschenko and Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko and save the country from forthcoming political disaster. Steinmeier also visited Sikorski at his private residence. The 2009 arrival of Guido Westerwelle, who replaced Steinmeier, only brought the two countries closer together. Westerwelle’s first official visit was to Warsaw. Soon afterward, he and Sikorski went to Belarus offering closer cooperation between Brussels and Minsk if President Alexander Lukashenko could guarantee free elections, allowing another Eastern European country to become a part of the Polish-German combined effort to shape the EU’s Eastern policy.

Then, in May 2011, the Polish and German ministers met with their Russian counterpart in Kaliningrad—the Russian exclave geographically separate from Russia that borders Poland and Lithuania. One of the main topics of the unprecedented, trilateral discussion was the scope of visa-free local border traffic. Symbolically, Sikorski and Westerwelle traveled to Kaliningrad together. The Polish politician came forward with a constructive proposal to extend forthcoming visa-free local border traffic to the whole territory of the Russian exclave. This would require an agreement from the other EU members, as the existing regulations mention visa-free travel over only a 50-kilometer zone. Poland and Russia hope to do away with that distance limit. In their letter, Sikorski and Westerwelle referred to this territory as a “laboratory for advanced EU-Russia cooperation.”

Of course, although bilateral cooperation between Poland and Germany is making progress, the two countries differ on several matters concerning the EU’s Eastern neighbors. As the Institute of Public Affairs’ report What policy towards Russia? The Polish and German points of view shows, the main difference of opinion seems to concern Russia’s foreign policy motives.

Germans tend to see Moscow as valuing “power and competition rather than compromise.” Both sides feel that Russia uses the energy trade “as a tool to ensure a strong international position,” which the Germans see as “an indication of its lack of appreciation and fear, stemming from a rift between Russian aspirations and reality.” Poles, however, stand by the position that this reflects Russia’s uncompromising pursuit of its national interests. Thus, while the Germans argue that Russia’s gas dispute with Ukraine and the conflict in Georgia happened because Moscow felt threatened and driven “into the corner,” Poles think these events prove Moscow’s foreign policy effectiveness.

The other disagreement between experts has to do with Russia’s participation in the Eastern Partnership (EaP) program. Poland, afraid of a situation in which cooperation with Moscow would surpass and suppress partnership with the countries of Eastern Europe, is rather skeptical about Russia joining the EaP program. German experts, though not unanimously, prefer Moscow’s closer participation with, or even inclusion in, the organization.

This lack of consent reflects a well-known distinction between the priorities Berlin and Warsaw gave to their Eastern politics. As the former director of Polish Institute of International Affairs Slawomir Debski wrote, these differences are rooted in history. While German “Ostpolitik” referred to the pursuit of development of the proper and beneficial relations with the heart of the Russian and then Soviet Empire, Polish “Eastern Policy” sought to find allies opposing this power center.

Overall, however, traditional and historic interpretations of Polish and German relations with Russia seem to be less and less relevant today. Without doubt Russia is still far larger than its individual neighbors, given the size of its economy, raw material deposits, and political and military power. But it is no longer a hegemonic power in Central and Eastern Europe.

Though the German-Russian “special relationship” based on close economic ties and large business projects in the energy field is widely seen as one of the foundations of European policy, Poland, an EU member (and NATO ally), is increasingly more attractive to Germany in particular, and also to Europe as a whole, thanks to its economic stability. According to data released from the German Federal Statistical Office, in 2010 trade between Germany and Poland totaled over $1 billion more than German-Russian trade, with an additional $8 billion more of Berlin’s money invested in Poland than in the Russian Federation. Moreover, Berlin’s trade with the Visegrad Group—the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia—and the three Baltic countries, whose policy toward Moscow and the countries of “new Eastern Europe” is very similar to Poland’s, is over three times higher than that with Russia

In contrast to most EU members, Poland’s economic situation is relatively good and the newly elected government enjoys a stable majority in parliament. The country has also adopted the so-called “golden rule” for its state budget—according to the 1997 constitution, the budget must be balanced and the total accumulated debt must not exceed 60 percent of GDP. Whatever serious challenges may stand before Poland, it is a pillar of stability in a chaotic Europe. A recent article in the German daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, signed by several German ministers of foreign affairs, demonstrates how attractive an ally Berlin perceives Warsaw to be. Along with France, Poland is mentioned as one of the two most important EU member states.

Yet, in order to understand the possibility of Polish-German cooperation within the EU, one should understand Warsaw’s difficult position. On the one hand, Warsaw strongly supports deeper integration and, as Prime Minister Tusk said at the European Parliament, it sees deeper integration as a remedy for the eurozone crisis. On the other hand, Warsaw opposes the creation of a “two-speed” Europe, which would involve different levels of integration for different countries based on their individual economies. Given that deeper integration is inevitable, the most important issue for Poland is whether the forthcoming changes, in large part introduced by Berlin, will leave the door to the eurozone open. It is the absence of Poland from this economic union that not only prevents both countries from even closer cooperation, but it may also cause a rift over the emergence of a two-speed Europe.

The Polish-German tandem could become an important pillar of European politics and influence relations inside the EU as well as Brussels’s Eastern policy. Berlin needs Warsaw to support its ideas about reforming the EU, including amendments to EU treaties that would lead to the greater coordination of fiscal policy, the possibility of eurozone members’ controlled bankruptcy, or the construction of a permanent bailout fund. As the idea of the European Central Bank (ECB) being directly engaged in solving the debt crisis gains ground throughout Europe, Germany also needs allies to protect ECB’s independence.

Poland is keen to use German resources to back its vision for the EU’s Eastern neighborhood, which includes a more active policy on the “new Eastern Europe” countries, possibly through the Eastern Partnership program. Warsaw would like to see the EU seriously engaged in the integration process with the EaP states. 

As for Russia, the EU should aim to develop close ties with Moscow while remaining true to its democratic values. As Sikorski said, Poland would be one of the main beneficiaries of Russia’s integration with the West and respect of Western political values.
Andrzej Turkowski is a visiting researcher at the Carnegie Moscow Center.
The Carnegie Moscow Center