Tensions persist between Germany and Poland

Posted in Europe | 21-Jun-07 | Author: Judy Dempsey| Source: International Herald Tribune

German Chancellor Angela Merkel (R) welcomes Poland's Foreign Minister Anna Fotyga (C) and Polish President Lech Kaczynski at the government guest house in Meseberg, some 70 km (43 miles) north of Berlin, June 16, 2007.

BERLIN: When Angela Merkel was sworn in as chancellor in November 2005, one of her foreign policy goals was to mend relations with Poland, Germany's largest eastern neighbor.

The atmosphere, however, has remained tense. At the European Union summit meeting that starts Thursday, Poland could derail an agreement over the bloc's constitution in what would be Merkel's first major foreign policy defeat.

The discord between the two countries dates from early 2005, when Merkel's predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, struck a deal with Russia to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, linking Russia to Germany but bypassing Poland.

For Poland's conservative-nationalist government, led by Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski and his twin brother, Lech, who is president, the gas deal was another reminder of Poland's history of subjugation by Russia and Germany.

For the Kaczynskis, who are 58, this history is personal. Their parents fought against the Nazis during the Warsaw Uprising of August 1944. Tens of thousands died while the advancing Red Army watched from the other side of Warsaw's river, the Vistula.

The lesson the Kaczynskis drew from this episode was to deeply mistrust Germany and Russia and battle harder for Polish national interests than any of their predecessors. "It will take time for Poland to deal with its past," said Rafal Trzaskowski, the EU expert at the Natolin European Center in Warsaw. "We've only been independent for 18 years. Look how long it has taken France and Germany to overcome their mutual suspicions."

The twins were also scarred by their experience in the anti-communist Solidarity trade union movement of the 1980s. After 1989, when Solidarity assumed power, they were marginalized, which their supporters say left them bitter.

"This government believes previous administrations did not defend Polish interests sufficiently," Trzaskowski said. "Poland believed it could play a big role in shaping the EU's foreign and security policy, but then the Kaczynski government saw how Germany was doing its own deals with Russia. This government is out to defend Poland's national interests in the EU even if it annoys some of the member states."

Some analysts call this the "Yalta syndrome" - referring to the Crimean resort where in 1944 Britain, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to the division of Europe between two ideological camps over the heads of the other Europeans. Poland, for all its valor in World War II, found itself under the Soviet side of the Iron Curtain, and it remained there until 1989.

That trauma, the analysts say, explains why Poland under the Kaczynski twins has taken such a combative approach to Germany's attempts to rescue a constitution for the European Union.

"You have to understand where the Kaczynskis come from," said Grzegorz Gromadzki, European affairs expert at the Stefan Batory Foundation, an independent research center in Warsaw. "This is a pretty anti-German government, influenced by the Warsaw Uprising and fears of Germany and Russia working together against Poland's interests. Remember, it was the Kaczynskis who pushed for building a museum in Warsaw to commemorate the victims of the uprising."

Successive postwar chancellors have all attempted rapprochement with Poland, starting with the Social Democrat Willy Brandt. During a state visit to Poland in 1970, Brandt knelt before a memorial to the heroes of the Warsaw ghetto. Helmut Kohl, a Christian Democrat, lobbied hard for Poland to join the European Union.

When Schröder, another Social Democrat, attended the commemorations of the 60th anniversary of the Warsaw Uprising, German commentators wrote that Poland and Germany were entering a new chapter of relations. But in 2005, Poland elected the Kaczynskis' conservative Law and Justice Party, and relations sharply deteriorated.

What the Kaczynskis remember about Schröder is not his attendance at the Warsaw Ghetto commemorations but his pipeline deal with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, and the German-Russian-French opposition to the U.S. war against Iraq.

"There is a sense of the Yalta syndrome, that deals are being done behind our back by the big boys, meaning Germany" said Marcin Zaborowski, co-author of "The New Atlanticist," a new book on Poland's foreign policy.

"The Kaczynski government sees Germany as no longer self-effacing but as egotistical and too close to Russia," he said. Polish officials acknowledge that Merkel has tried to correct this. During last month's EU-Russia summit meeting in Samara, she openly defended Poland's interests. "The Poles appreciate it this, but they say that Merkel has not stopped the pipeline going ahead," Zaborowski, who is also European analyst at the EU's Institute for Security Studies in Paris, said. "This is why Poland is fighting like hell to have a blocking power in this whole dispute over voting rights."

This policy has sometimes paid off. During an EU summit meeting last year, the Polish government managed to squeeze an extra €100 million from the Union's future budget after threatening to block any agreement.

But it has also worked to Poland's detriment. When it joined, Poland had big plans to shift the EU's foreign and security policy eastward to Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova. "You need allies inside the EU to achieve this and experts back home," said Zaborowski. "Unfortunately, this government has failed to build such alliances and has isolated experts. In fact, it has become increasingly introverted."