The Cable

Three Big Challenges for Merkel’s Mission to Warsaw, Plus Two Reasons for Optimism

Strengthening German-Polish ties will be hard, but not impossible.

merkel

German Chancellor Angela Merkel is meeting with key Polish government leaders and politicians in Warsaw on Tuesday, a bid to strengthen the ties between Germany and Poland amid choppy geopolitical waters.

Stronger German-Polish relations would likely be useful during what are particularly trying times: Merkel might have said on Tuesday that the EU wants to work with the United States “on the basis of our common values,” but U.S. President Donald Trump is understood by European leaders to be a threat to the European Union; British Prime Minister Theresa May seemingly intends to use a March 9 European Council summit to trigger Brexit negotiations; far-right, Euroskeptic parties are on the rise across the continent; and Russian state-sponsored disinformation would further weaken the EU.

But wishin’ and hopin’ don’t always make it so. Merkel faces three big challenges in Warsaw:

  • Poland is openly defying the EU. Poland’s ruling far-right Law and Justice party is arguably itself one of those Euroskeptics. Polish leaders might tell Merkel that they’re happy to work together to bolster the EU, but the reality remains that those same leaders have undermined the EU by openly defying it. On Dec. 19, the ruling party took control of the constitutional tribunal after refusing to seat justices appointed by the previous ruling party. The European Commission issued strongly worded statements, but was ultimately incapable of doing anything, as Poland’s illiberal brother-in-arms, Hungary, said it would block any action taken against Poland. She has kept from directly (openly) criticizing Law and Justice, but that doesn’t mean her ends won’t be threatened by the Polish party’s anti-liberal means.
  • Poland and Germany don’t see eye to eye on migration. The Polish government may make the argument that what it does with rule of law and free media within its own borders is its business. But the migration crisis is all of the EU’s business. Germany is pushing a policy for the “fair sharing of the burden” of refugees. Refusal of refugees is one of the cornerstones of Law and Justice policy. That isn’t actually an insurmountable divide: Poland could, for example, make financial contributions to share the burden. But if Law and Justice insists Poland sits on the sidelines in dealing with the migration crisis, it is difficult to see how to bring them aboard as an active EU player.
  • Nor do they agree on energy. After meeting with Merkel on Tuesday, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said she is confident that strong German-Polish relations are confident for a strong EU. She also said a planned Nord Stream 2 pipeline is unacceptable to Poland. This could be something of a sticking point. Nord Stream 2 is meant to carry gas from Russia to — where else — Germany.

But it isn’t all bad for Merkel — and, by extension, the European Union. There are two reasons all of the above might not derail her efforts.

  • Unlike other far-right European leaders, Poland’s Law and Justice Party doesn’t trust Trump. Why? Because Trump trusts Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Poland may still be pinning its cautious hopes on Trump, but it is nevertheless wary of the U.S. president’s stance toward Moscow. Poland and Russia have their obvious historic and geopolitical differences (see: 18th century; 20th century.) What’s more, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of the Law and Justice party and the most powerful (though unelected) man in Poland, believes the Kremlin was behind the 2010 Smolensk plane crash that killed his twin brother, Lech Kaczynski, then president of Poland. This might make him more amenable to working with the woman some see as the best international check against Trump and Putin.
  • These external threats might make the Union European again. “With the not-so-certain future outlook regarding policies of all its global partners, the EU has become more unified.” That, at least, is how Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas put it in an interview to Bloomberg. Paradoxically, that the challenges seem so insurmountable might make EU members states pull together to surmount them. Whether that is wishful thinking or reality depends on EU member states — including the one Merkel is visiting on Tuesday.

Photo credit: Francesco Gulotta-Pool/Getty Images

Emily Tamkin is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering ambassadorial and diplomatic affairs in Washington. @emilyctamkin

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