Why the German-Polish Rapprochement Matters for Europe

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This week, Germany’s Bertelsmann Foundation and Poland’s Institute of Public Affairs jointly published a fascinating survey of how Germans see Poles and Russians.

According to the findings, Germans like Russia far less today than they did several years ago. In contrast, Poland is viewed much more favorably than it was.

This has implications for any European strategy toward Russia. In the past, the EU’s strategic approach was shaped largely by Germany. But now, Poland is an important player in the EU with considerable influence on policy toward Russia and Europe’s Eastern neighborhood. If Berlin and Warsaw reached a common view on these issues, it would have an immense impact on EU policy.

Until recently, the Polish position toward Russia was based on a deep feeling of victimhood, while Germany’s attitude was founded on guilt.

Poland’s relations with Russia were shaped by its experiences of occupation and humiliation. Until Russia acknowledged that, and apologized, most Poles saw no point in even talking to the Russians.

That was very much the view of Poland’s Law and Justice Party when it was in government between 2005 and 2007.

This way of thinking severely limited what kind of strategy Warsaw was willing to enter into vis-à-vis Moscow. It also meant that Poland worked very hard to bring Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, and others closer to Europe in order to weaken Russia’s grip on the region. In essence, Poland’s policy was anti-Russian rather than an attempt to encourage democracy among its Eastern neighbors for the sake of it.

Donald Tusk’s center-right government, which came to power in 2007, changed that. Along with his Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski, Tusk put the past into one category, and political and economic ties into another. “Poland began to adopt a very pragmatic approach towards Russia,” said Agnieszka Łada, one of the authors of the survey published this week.

Poland also changed its attitude toward the EU’s Eastern Neighborhood Policy. Warsaw’s stance is now about adopting small, practical measures. Realism has replaced idealism.

Indeed, Poland’s best diplomats have no illusions about how long it is going to take for Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine, Georgia, and Armenia to build democratic institutions. Yet Poles know that gaining Germany’s support would help enormously.

For the moment, Germany’s attitude toward Russia is hovering between two competing views: the enduring legacy of Ostpolitik, and realism.

Ostpolitik was first launched in the late 1960s in the belief that détente and commercial ties were the best ways to engage Russia and help it open up. After the end of the Cold War, Ostpolitik found a new raison d’être. The policy would be used to modernize Russia’s economy in the hope that this, in turn, would lead to the country’s political modernization.

Clearly, this hasn’t worked. Democratic reform did not happen in Russia—on the contrary, the country became less democratic. Furthermore, German opinion is now split over what approach to take toward Russia. Only 34 percent of those who responded to the think tank survey want closer cooperation with Russia.

This change in Germany’s perception of Russia is largely due to President Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian style of rule. But it also has much to do with Chancellor Angela Merkel and her Christian Democratic Union party.

Of course, there are still several organizations in Germany that continue to pay homage to Ostpolitik. They include the older generation of the opposition Social Democrats as well as pro-Russian groups like the Ost-Ausschuss, the influential business lobby that has very close connections to the Kremlin. For them, business interests and détente take precedence over values.

But the Christian Democrats are now so publicly critical toward Russia that they are breaking ranks with Ostpolitik. Given Poland’s more pragmatic stance on Russia, both countries can now find common ground vis-à-vis Moscow.

Victimhood is no longer the driving force for Warsaw’s relations with Russia, and Germany’s postwar guilt and responsibility are no longer driving Merkel’s attitude. This shift could be an opportunity for the EU to forge a new policy toward Russia. That policy should be based on a far less ambitious relationship focusing on a few issues instead of the wide-ranging partnership accords that have yielded few results.

A new EU approach would also require Germany to separate its view of its Eastern neighbors from its position on Russia. For far too long, Berlin has viewed the region through a Russian lens that limited Germany’s ability to think strategically toward its other Eastern neighbors.

Merkel has been slowly adjusting this perception. Given the much stronger ties that now exist between Poland and Germany, the two countries should work together closely with their Eastern neighbors. The region sorely needs their support.

 

 

Comments (3)

 
 
  • Jacek
    Realiable policy toward Russia has to base on improvement of Polish infrastructure (Via Baltica) and up-todate defence. Better infrastructure in Poland means better logistics for trade with Russia.
     
     
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  • Madeleine
    '...most Poles saw no point in even talking to the Russians.' - How does the author know that? This is a made up generalization and a really bad one. Or maybe there is any research on the magic shift of polish attitudes after Russia's apology? Or at least proof making the statement a true one?
     
     
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  • K Bledowski
    Right on the money. A very perceptive and intelligent view of the changing approach to Russia.
     
     
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