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Germany and a law and justice Poland

The fact that Germany’s eastern neighbor, Poland, will now be governed by veteran nationalist Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party is causing some trepidation in Berlin writes Daniela Schwarzer. Less than ten years ago, the Kaczynski brothers, Jaroslaw as prime minister, and his late brother as president, poisoned the Polish-German relationship with nationalistic tones and historical stereotypes. The strategy of the German government then was to keep calm and carry on; Chancellor Angela Merkel did not respond to the provocations, so as not to contribute to the polemics. But under this surface of stoicism, Germans were offended.

The eight post-Kaczynski years of two consecutive center-right Civic Platform (PO) governments have seen a stabilization of the relationship between Berlin and Warsaw. Although there was some dissent over issues like energy and climate policy, the two largely cooperated constructively — despite a growing asymmetry in the relationship, with Germany moving to center-stage of EU policymaking since 2010. In fact, the demonstration of political closeness cumulated in then-Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski’s public invitation to the Merkel government to take an even stronger and more decisive lead in times of the euro area crises.

German policymakers are well aware that similar calls will not be heard from the new PiS government. But expectations in Berlin are still that tensions will not escalate to the degree they did a decade ago, not least because both Germany and Poland have a vested interest in the relationship.

Poland, the fastest growing economy in the EU, is a very important partner to Germany, the EU’s largest economy. Both Warsaw and Berlin share an appetite for a deepening of the European single market. Both traditionally favor sound public finances, based on constitutional rules in both countries. Looking at the PiS election platform, the hope in Berlin is that the protectionist-nationalistic proposals they put forward, such as privileging Polish of foreign companies, will not become policy, not least because Poland would break EU competition rules. Meanwhile, hopes that Poland would become a member of the euro area anytime soon had already been buried under the previous Civic Platform government due to the fading support of political leaders and the required majorities for the necessary constitutional amendment.  In term of security policy, the expectation is that a PiS-led Poland will harden the tone vis-à-vis Russia, but will not fundamentally change its policy. For Germany, this will mean that its task to ensure a cohesive EU approach to the matter and transatlantic unity may become tougher. But here too, the assumption in Berlin is that Warsaw understands that it cannot risk weakening the European Union (in the face of Russian threats) by polarizing too much.

The toughest challenge may lie in the field of migration policy. In the refugee crisis, Germany has become a strong proponent of a liberal approach and European solidarity, for instance through a quota system. Before the general elections last Sunday, Poland was an important bridge-builder between those countries that ask for inner EU solidarity and those in Eastern and Central Europe who have outright refused quotas and related policies. The PiS government will strengthen those voices in the EU that see the refugee crisis as a problem that others, particularly border states and Germany, must manage on their own. Berlin will need to put considerable political capital into this and may have to explore options of satisfying Eastern and Central European demands in other policy areas. Warsaw can make itself a helpful partner in achieving this — if it so chooses.

Daniela Schwarzer is Senior Director for Research and Director of the Europe Program for the German Marshal fund based in Berlin. This article was first published by the GMF.

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