Berlin and Warsaw must cease their feuding

Helmut Kohl, the former German chancellor, once said that just as his country’s rapprochement with France was necessary to begin European integration after the second world war, there would be no lasting peace in Europe after the cold war without close partnership between Germany and Poland.

Until recently, a closer partnership seemed to be developing. As the largest state in formerly communist Europe, Poland occupied a special place in Berlin’s foreign policy. Poland’s post-1989 politicians, in turn, believed the road to the European Union ran straight through Berlin. There were signs of harmony between the two states: Berlin supported Poland’s efforts to join western institutions, German exports to Poland boomed and the process of reconciliation moved apace.

Today, the relationship has reverted to bickering. Diplomatic affronts are once again common. Take, for example, Radek Sikorski, the Polish defence minister, who likened the German-Russian Baltic pipeline project to the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact that led to Poland’s partition in September 1939. More recently Jochen Fromme, a member of the German parliament, compared the postwar expulsion of Germans from eastern Europe to the Nazi invasion of Poland.

Warsaw and Berlin are now at odds over the Baltic pipeline and their relations with Russia. But perhaps the biggest worry is that they increasingly clash over interpretations of the past. 

Why is this happening now after Poland joined the EU? The accession was expected to accelerate, not set back, the rapprochement process. The German and much of the European press blame the current nadir in German-Polish relations on the Kaczynski twins – Lech, the president, and Jaroslaw, the prime minister. According to this view, Warsaw is run by nationalistic xenophobes who use every opportunity to take a swipe at Germany. This explanation fits in with the generally unfavourable perception of Poland’s new government elsewhere.

This simple explanation is, however, mistaken. The Kaczynski brothers are less pro-German than any of their predecessors. But the Polish-German problem is not just linked to particular personalities – it is structural. As such it is actually more serious and potentially long lasting.

Just as France and West Germany were brought together in the 1950s to set in motion European integration, Poland and Germany shared a common interest in EU enlargement. Nobody likes to be the final frontier and thanks to enlargement in 2004 Germany was no longer a Frontstaat, while Poland was given the chance to join the west.

The mutual benefits of enlargement persuaded Warsaw and Berlin to put their differences aside, or even pretend that they did not exist. But this is over – Poland is in the EU and in the absence of a grand European project on the horizon the differences have started to fester.

The rapprochement between Warsaw and Berlin is still in its infancy. Germany only dropped its territorial claim over Poland as recently as 1991. This is a rather sensitive matter in Warsaw, as Germany and Russia have divided Poland between themselves on four occasions in the past.

It is hardly surprising that the Poles are concerned that Berlin and Moscow agreed to build a pipeline that would circumvent Poland. This leaves Poland dependent on Russian gas, while liberating Russia from the need to transit Poland to deliver gas to Germany.

These historical sensitivities are likely to persist. There is no doubt that the new Poland is enjoying its first taste of national assertiveness. Meanwhile, a significant part of former chancellor Gerhard Schröder’s appeal was his determination to turn Germany into a “normal”, confident nation and make a clean break with the past.

The Baltic pipeline deal was one of the most spectacular manifestations of this approach. After all, by signing the deal with the Russians, Mr Schröder was merely looking after Germany’s interests. Why should he be concerned about those countries in between? Would not France or Britain do the same?

This is perhaps true, although the argument misses the point that neither France nor Britain would face the same historical sensitivities in the region. In any case, persuading the Germans that they should be as self-interested as any others is perhaps the most enduring aspect of Mr Schröder’s legacy, to the point that despite her misgivings about the project, Angela Merkel is compelled to continue with the deal.

So is there a brighter future on the horizon? The domestic climate in both countries makes it very unlikely that this relationship will cease being dogged by the past. However, there are many areas where the interests of the two neighbours do meet, such as the EU’s eastern policy and, indeed, energy policy.

Russia’s recent feud with Belarus resulted in it halting the flow of oil that also supplies Poland and Germany. A shocked Berlin is now looking at Warsaw’s arguments with greater sympathy. This incident shows that it is still possible that Poland and Germany will discover that more unites than divides them. It may even persuade them to be a little bit more understanding about the past.

The writer is author of Germany, Poland and Europe (MUP 2004)

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't copy articles from FT.com and redistribute by email or post to the web.