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Germany in the EU after Merkel: A view from Poland

Monika Sus

Date: 12/01/2022

Following Merkel's departure, the already complicated relationship between Germany and Poland is bound to become even more fraught. Disagreements over the rule of law, Nord Stream 2, climate policies, and the EU's future will prevent any strategic alignment between Berlin and Warsaw at the EU level – yet circumstances condemn the two neighbours to work together.

Polish-German relations are certainly not at their best. In addition to the struggle over the rule of law, differences on the functioning of the European Union and the future of European integration have been dividing the neighbours. Poland's perception of German EU policy could be summed up using a once famous Facebook status: it's complicated. And with the new German government, the complications are likely to mount.

But before exploring the Polish view on German EU policy in the post-Merkel era, two current issues showcase why, despite all the disagreements, Poland and Germany are condemned to work together.

The first and most pressing one is the Belarus migrant crisis which, due to a high risk of escalation, may destabilise parts of Eastern Europe. Cooperation between Poland, as the country directly affected, and Germany, as its immediate neighbour and the politically and economically strongest country in the region, is essential. Both countries have a variety of instruments at their disposal to deal with the crisis, ranging from pushing the EU to introduce sanctions against Belarus, to offering humanitarian aid and setting up a safety corridor for migrants trapped in Belarus. To enhance the overall security of the region, providing military aid to Ukraine and strengthening NATO's eastern flank should also be part of Germany’s and Poland’s mid- to long-term considerations. Generally speaking, Polish-German cooperation on the Union’s eastern neighbourhood is unavoidable and a prerequisite for the effectiveness of any EU policy in the region.

The second reason why Poland and Germany are doomed to work together is the economy, especially when faced with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Germany has been Poland’s key economic partner for two decades, and Warsaw was gradually developing into a major partner for Berlin as well.  In 2020, it became Germany's fifth trading partner, after China, the Netherlands, the US and France. Moreover, in the first quarter of 2021, Poland ranked as the third most important source of German imports for the first time ever, overtaking France and Italy. Surprisingly, this news went largely unnoticed, although it is undeniable proof of the close ties and shared interests between the two countries. Hence, further development of close economic cooperation, i.e. in the form of German investment projects in advanced technology sectors, will certainly continue despite the political differences.

For better or worse – Merkel as an Polish ally

Since 1989, Berlin and Warsaw have declared that their bilateral relations, due to their turbulent history, are particularly important. Whereas various stories can be told about the ups and downs of German-Polish cooperation over the past three decades, one thing is certain: 2015 marked a turning point in the relations between the two, and in Polish EU policy. Before 2015 (except for the Law and Justice (PiS) government stint in 2005-2007), bilateral cooperation was based on common interests regarding most EU issues and on Polish leaders acknowledging that close ties with Germany strengthen Warsaw’s position in the EU. After the national-conservative PiS’ rise to power, the relationship cooled down significantly.

What did not change was the position of Angela Merkel, who remained an ally of Poland throughout her chancellorship. Despite the increasingly turbulent bilateral relations and Poland's conflict with the European Commission over the rule of law, Merkel urged Brussels to continue the dialogue with her Polish counterparts, ignoring the taunts of national-conservative circles in Poland. Merkel’s highest priority, which is at the same time considered to be her legacy and her weakness, was the unity of the EU; that is why she constantly underlined the importance of finding consensus.

In fact, the Polish government could count itself double fortunate. Merkel’s drive to keep the Union together did not only contribute to the conciliatory approach to the rule of law. More importantly, as she was aware of the reluctance of Poland and several other countries towards French President Macron's ambitious vision to further deepen European integration, Merkel adopted a more consensual approach, being careful not to antagonise the less EU-enthusiastic member states. Her position was particularly important for Poland, which, as a non-eurozone country, is by default excluded from some of the decision-making. Any proposal to strengthen the eurozone as the core of the Union would thus further diminish Polish influence.

Since 2015, however, Poland and Germany have increasingly found themselves on opposite sides of EU policy debates. One major disagreement was the reaction to the unprecedented number of migrants arriving in Europe in 2015 and 2016. Warsaw criticised Merkel's ‘open-door’ policy and disagreed with the refugee quota system proposed by the European Commission in response to the uneven distribution of migrants in member states.

Another bone of contention is the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline, the completion of which began in 2015, shortly after the Russian annexation of Crimea. Despite acknowledging Germany's role in imposing EU sanctions on Russia in response to its aggression on Ukrainian territory, the pipeline remains to Warsaw (and several other Central and Eastern European countries) a sign of Germany's lack of solidarity with its eastern neighbours and a telling example of the ineffectiveness of the sanction regime. Poland has also argued that the pipeline perpetuates Russian domination of EU energy markets and undermines European solidarity in the face of increasingly aggressive behaviour from Russia.

Finally, Poland took a different position than Germany in the context of extending qualified majority voting in the area of EU foreign and security policy. The German government, together with France, argued that moving away from the unanimity rule would enhance the decision-making process and advance the Union’s performance as a global actor. Yet, Poland perceived this as a further encroachment on its national sovereignty. This illustrates both countries’ different approaches to European integration: Merkel’s priority was always a strong and actionable EU whereas Polish governments after 2015 have emphasised their attachment to national sovereignty and criticised the EU institutions for seeking to extend their powers.

Overall, Merkel’s consideration for the interests of politically weaker member states, such as Poland, was acknowledged rather than appreciated by Warsaw. Her merits have been overshadowed by her support for Nord Stream 2 and Polish national-conservatives’  fears of Germany's growing economic and political ‘supremacy’ in the EU. Against this backdrop, Polish President Andrzej Duda's refusal to meet Merkel during her farewell visit to Warsaw due to his “scheduling problems” was telling.

Old problems persist, new ones crop up

The new German government is not likely to follow Merkel’s conciliatory approach towards Poland. Bilateral relations will be increasingly guided by shared interests, with economic ties serving as the main stabiliser. However, from what we can deduct from the coalition agreement and the first statements of the new German government, these are likely to be scarce. Instead, the divergences between Berlin and Warsaw, which have been mounting since 2015, will persist and even worsen. The two neighbours are likely to disagree over several essential EU policies.

The first challenge for Poland is the new German government’s vision of the future of the Union. The coalition has a strong pro-EU agenda, outlining the possibility that the ongoing Conference for the Future of Europe might develop into a constitutional convention, possibly even leading to a federal European state. This stands in stark opposition to the Polish government’s view. What Warsaw wants is a Union of strong and sovereign nation states and it perceives Brexit as proof that a federalist model of closer European political integration is doomed to fail.

Another problematic area is energy. The Scholz government has announced ambitious climate plans, accelerating the transition away from coal by 2030 and pledging to massively expand renewable energy sources. Poland, in turn, due to its high dependence on coal, is much more reluctant and does not welcome EU pressure to speed up the Green transformation. There is a growing awareness of the political, economic, and social costs of using coal, yet the Polish government is far from making as ambitious commitments as Berlin. The deadline to abandon coal mining has been set for 2049, but there is no plan on how to achieve this goal, while investments in renewable energy have been limited since 2015.

The third disagreement combines energy and geopolitics. Nord Stream 2 divides the “traffic-light” coalition itself. The SPD supports the project and is more inclined to a dialogue with Russia, while the Liberals and Greens advocate a tougher stance towards Moscow, albeit for different reasons. However, since the pipeline is almost ready, it is highly unlikely the new German government will abandon it now. At the same time, due to the conflict on the Polish-Belarusian border, which is arguably inspired by Russia, the voices against Nord Stream 2 have become louder than ever. The Polish prime minister called on the new German government to change its attitude toward the project and “do everything possible” to prevent Russia from using it as a weapon against its neighbours.

Finally, in addition to these divergent interests, there is the elephant in the room – the democratic backsliding in Poland. Judging by the prominence given to the rule of law in the coalition agreement the Scholz government and the Greens in particular seem to be moving away from Merkel's conciliatory approach towards the PiS-led judicial reforms. A decisive stance from Berlin on the violations of democratic principles in Poland will likely overshadow the bilateral relations, making any strategic German-Polish alignment in the EU close to impossible.

And this is why the status of the Polish-German relations is so complicated. Despite deep differences, the neighbours are condemned to work together in the face of mounting geopolitical challenges and their economic interdependence. The price they and Europe would have to pay for not cooperating would simply be too high.

Monika Sus is Associate Professor at the Polish Academy of Science, Warsaw & Fellow at the Centre for International Security, Hertie School, Berlin & Visiting fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre, Florence.  The author wished to acknowledge the support of the German-Polish Science Foundation (DPWS). 

The European Policy Centre continues to contribute to the analysis of Germany’s EU policy at this pivotal moment in German politics, with a series of Commentaries running from July 2021 to January 2022. It will feature views from various European capitals on post-Merkel expectations.

The support the European Policy Centre receives for its ongoing operations, or specifically for its publications, does not constitute an endorsement of their contents, which reflect the views of the authors only. Supporters and partners cannot be held responsible for any use that may be made of the information contained therein.

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