VISEGRAD: Merkel eyes opportunity in Poland’s growing isolation

VISEGRAD: Merkel eyes opportunity in Poland’s growing isolation
Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
By Tim Gosling in Prague February 8, 2017

German Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to Poland on February 7 seeking to tempt Warsaw back into the inner EU fold and away from the ‘awkward squad’, continuing a merry-go-round of geopolitical meetings as global leaders seek to make sense of or hay from the chaos in Washington DC.

The trip follows the latest get together by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin on February 2. Moscow has been emboldened by Donald Trump’s hints of scrapping sanctions and downgrading Nato activities in Central & Eastern Europe; Orban by the populist and nationalist messages coming out of the White House.

Poland also enjoys the idea of reclaiming the power it complains has been transferred to Brussels under German auspices, as de facto leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski made clear when sealing a ‘bromance’ with Orban and declaring a “counter cultural revolution” against the EU last year. However, the Hungarian leader’s bear hug is the stuff of nightmares for Poland, which has a deep historical suspicion of Russia, especially as Budapest has recently repeated its questioning of EU sanctions against Moscow.

It’s not the only international link that Poland’s spiky PiS government is eyeing nervously. The doubt cast by Trump over Nato’s role in Europe has kept a lid on praise for the new US presidency, and puts Poland’s traditional Atlanticist stance in question. The UK has long been courted as the major EU member state that can offer support to Warsaw’s interests and counterbalance the power of Berlin; however it is on its way out of the bloc.

Since the Brexit vote, the other two members of the Visegrad quadrumvirate – Slovakia and the Czech Republic – have made it plain they would prefer to hitch their wagon to Germany, on whose economy they are hugely dependent, rather than on any Polish-Hungarian ‘axis of the awkward’.

Indeed, while Merkel was in her meetings with the reclusive de facto Polish leader, the Czech Republic was flagging up its support of one of her main allies. Kaczynski has said Warsaw will not support his bitter rival, the former Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, as president of the EU Council at elections in March; Czech sources reiterated the same day that Prague will do all it can to secure a second term in Brussels for the former Polish PM. “The situation is changing for Poland,” says Joanna Popielawska at Warsaw-based analytics centre Polityka Insight. “The invite to Merkel is a quite obvious reaction to fears of isolation.”

Exposed by Trump’s folding of the Nato umbrella, Poland’s somewhat paranoid Russophobes are likely to seek additional shelter. Warsaw will not have missed Moscow’s apparent testing of the new US administration; the conflict in eastern Ukraine sparked back into life less than two weeks after he arrived in the White House.

Polish officials are reported to be seeking to understand how far east Nato’s commitment will extend in Europe under Trump. Meanwhile, a European defence force has been talked up by Poland in recent weeks, and is likely to be pushed hard by Warsaw. Any hope that Kaczynski has of moving that slow process forwards would clearly require goodwill from Berlin and Brussels.

It was perhaps no coincidence that Merkel timed her visit to fall shortly ahead of a meeting of Nato defence ministers and the Munich Security Conference. German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen will meet the new US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis in Washington on February 10.

Skin in the game

German leverage is significant in other ways as well. The country is by far the largest investor in Poland as well as being the largest contributor to EU structural funds, of which Poland stands to gain over €100bn to the end of the decade. Around 2mn Poles work in the neighbouring country and send back remittances. “It is very important for the Polish economy that German companies are involved here,” said Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo when she appeared at a joint press conference with Merkel.

While there are questions over Berlin’s approach to Russia’s Nord Stream II gas pipeline plan, which Russia is using to bypass traditional transit states like Poland and Ukraine for its gas exports, Merkel is perhaps the most important supporter of EU sanctions against Moscow, which are due for another vote in March.

Add in the nervousness in Warsaw that the EU may now be the only power at Poland’s back against potential Russian aggression and it’s hard to understand why it was that Merkel had to travel to visit Kaczynski, rather than the other way around.

Yet the German chancellor has skin in the game also. She faces elections later this year, and the populist backlash against her open door policy for refugees will likely make that her toughest domestic political challenge yet. However, Merkel’s has made preserving the EU in the face of the challenges piling up a personal mission, and so was on the campaign trail in Poland. “Adopting a covenant in Europe involves presenting where we are going; whether we have a common aim or whether each country has its own aim,” the German leader said at the joint press conference with the Polish PM.

Getting Poland’s awkward conservatives to clamber back on board the EU bandwagon would be a tangible success. However, she found Warsaw’s growing isolation has not yet pushed it to let up on demands for reform of a bloc that is so vulnerable right now. That provoked some chilly scenes. “Poland and Germany… have a huge role to play in the changes that are taking place in the Union,” Szydlo said, claiming Warsaw is keen for greater cooperation with its neighbour.

Merkel gave that short shrift, warning that in light of “some ideas that go in the direction of treaty change, I will put forward the argument that we should proceed very cautiously”.

Yet, as was shown in September at the first EU summit following the Brexit vote, neither Poland nor erstwhile partner in “counter cultural revolution” Hungary are about to lead any reform. The demands that “someone” should shake up the EU are useful for the domestic audience to show that the PiS is engaged internationally and fighting the Brussels bogeyman.

In reality, Kaczynski appears to have little interest in the outside world. He does not travel abroad; he simply wants the EU to leave him alone to rule Poland how he wishes. The crux there is the EU’s challenge to what it says are the Polish government’s undermining of the rule of law and democracy. Brussels has demanded changes to the constitutional court and media regulation be reversed, but has largely shown it is toothless in the face of open hostility from Warsaw.

The German chancellor’s visit came just ahead of the latest EU deadline of February 21 for action. In public at least, Merkel has been careful not to venture into that mess, leaving Brussels to lead the challenge. However, the topic was certainly on the agenda behind the scenes.

The chancellor reminisced over the role played by Solidarity in bringing down communism in Central Europe. “From this time we know how important plural societies are, how important an independent judiciary and independent media are,” Merkel said.

The European Commission is searching for a route out of a conundrum that has is hugely damaging to its credibility. Vice-President Jyrki Katainen was the latest to threaten to use Article 7 – the “nuclear option” of stripping Poland’s voting rights – in early February. Brussels is stuck between a rock and a hard place, and could yet decide to test the bromance and Hungary’s pledge to veto any such move.

Yet that’s a route fraught with risk. Merkel instead presumably sought to try yet again to convince Kaczynski to “follow the basic values on which the whole EU and Europe has been built”,  as Katainen put it to Reuters ahead of the visit.

However, that is likely a bridge too far, suggests Popielawska. “It would be very difficult for PiS to implement the EU’s demands,” the analyst remarks. “Kaczynski would have to dismantle the basis of his whole political project in Poland.”

On board

It wasn’t all confrontation, however. Points of agreement were also stressed. Economic cooperation between the two countries was played up, with trade between the two countries likely passing the €100bn threshold for the first time in 2016.

Merkel is savvy enough also to understand Poland’s most telling pressure point. She made sure to stress that when it comes to defence, Berlin and Warsaw share “very common views”.

As the German chancellor spoke, her defence minister was delivering German troops to Lithuania, where they will lead a Nato battle group as part of the for previous US administration’s commitment to bolster forces in the region to deter Russian aggression.

Sharing Warsaw’s nervousness over suggestions that Nato could be obsolete, Lithuania’s President Dalia Grybauskaite said the German battalion arrives at “the right place and at the right time”, according to Reuters. Von der Leyen said Europe must boost military cooperation and solve its own problems.

Whether that means Berlin welcomes Kaczynski’s recent call for Europe to adopt its own independent nuclear umbrella – based on the French arsenal, which already covers Germany – to back up what suddenly appears an unreliable US deterrent is another matter.

Yet Poland’s growing need for geopolitical support certainly looks to be nudging Kaczynski away from his former stance, in which he has accused Germany of seeking to dominate the EU. The caricatures of German politicians dressed in Nazi uniforms that adorned front pages in Poland last year were nowhere to be seen when Merkel arrived. Whether Trump, Brexit and Orban’s Russian overtures will also push Kaczynski from his efforts to undermine Brussels remains a big question, however. But he will have found it hard to argue with the sentiment expressed by perhaps his arch-nemesis earlier this week.

“The change in Washington puts the European Union in a difficult situation; with the new administration seeming to put into question the last 70 years of American foreign policy,” Tusk wrote to EU leaders in a letter urging cooperation.

“All European Union leaders face a choice,” wrote Judy Dempsy of Carnegie Europe in early February. “They either allow the United States and Russia to divide the bloc—and even destabilise it—or they realise that they have to complete a project begun sixty years ago in Rome.”

Kaczynski may not be ready to accept that rather dramatic claim. But his unusually warm demeanour towards his German guest suggests he realises that all-out confrontation with the EU may not be the wisest course in the current climate. “There was a good atmosphere,” Kaczynski told reporters after his meeting with the chancellor, to whom he has offered clear support in her upcoming bid for a fourth term leading Germany. “My sense is that today’s visit will bring good results.”