Warsaw, Brussels and Berlin – Not a Marriage of Convenience Anymore

It has become clear that the EU lacks the appropriate instruments to deal with such occurrences as the Hungarian-Polish obstinacy. Obviously, the EU is a fair-weather construct which becomes help- and meaningless once the track gets lost. The lesson to be learned: the rapid expansion was premature – and ultimately self-defeating. It does not even need the much-maligned Russian meddling...

On December 20, 2017 the European Commission for the first time in its history triggered the Article 7 procedure against a member state – in this case Poland – which may lead to the suspension of voting and other rights. In the wake of this decision, relations between Warsaw and Brussels hit a new low. The reasons are obvious, the consequences less so.

The PiS government, in power since 2015, has embarked on a course which the EU cautiously considers “a clear risk of a serious breach of the rule of law” and which in fact amounts to a comprehensive autocratic transformation of Poland’s political system. For the European Union this is hard to stomach. Whereas NATO can easily digest political diversity – the threat, real or imagined, it is meant to counter, acts as a potent unifier – the EU cannot, since it is based on a different logic. Within the EU, domestic policy of its member states has a direct bearing on its standing and direction. As the Vice-President of the Commission, Frans Timmermans, pointed out, once you break down the rule of law, “that means breaking down the smooth functioning of the Union as a whole”. The Article 7 procedure is the last resort, but to no avail, since Poland is not alone. It has ganged together with the avowedly “non-liberal” Hungary and with others such as Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic duly waiting in line. The Visegrad Grouping and the recent “Three Sees Initiative” form the institutional backbone – and it is no accident that this initiative is a direct outgrowth of Piłsudski’s “Intermarium” (Międzymorze) with which he once tried to unify the Slavic west against both Germany and the Soviet Union in the interwar period (which appears to be coming back with a vengeance).

Poland, Enfant Terrible of Europe Tatiana Romanova
New Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said that after WWII Poland did not receive adequate compensation from Germany for the damage it had suffered and has the right to bring the topic of reparations to the agenda of Polish-German negotiations. Germany is unlikely to return to this issue, says Valdai Club expert Tatiana Romanova.

The dual demarcation from Germany and Russia (plus Ukraine) has always been the essence of the PiS foreign policy doctrine and of the right wing in Polish politics. Relations with Russia have completely stalled since 2015 (having fallen victim to Kaczynski’s obsession with the Smolensk air crash of his brother), relations with Ukraine are once again haunted by the past (instead of being energized by the future) and relations with Germany follow a dual equally destructive objective. On the one hand, Warsaw is again raising the specter of German war crimes in order to put Berlin on the defensive (and to counter the moral hyperbole of Germany’s refugee policy after having retracted the commitment of its predecessor to host a few thousand people stranded in Greece and Italy). And by equating Brussels with Berlin, Warsaw tries to delegitimize the EU criticism of the PiS departure from EU values.

During the first PiS government (2005-2007) it used to be the claim that without the war Poland would have some 80 million inhabitants on par with Germany. Now it is the issue of allegedly unsettled reparations in the range of €840 billion – regardless of numerous declarations, the “Two-Plus-Four Treaty” of 1990 and in spite of the territorial compensation, which after all amounted to one third of German territory in 1945. Warsaw went at any length to substantiate its newfound claim but so far it has not raised the issue from the political declaratory to the official diplomatic level. In that it seems to be following the Greek role model, since Athens too reactivated its lingering claims (in the range of €300 billion) when the economic crisis reached its peak in 2015 pretending that German payments would have rectified all the maladies which now called for deflection.

The real issue, however, is the growing split within the European Union between its Western core and its Eastern periphery. In light of Eastern and notably Hungarian-Polish obstinacy, it has become clear that the EU is void of appropriate instruments to deal with such occurrences. Obviously, the EU – like the Euro – is a fair-weather construct which becomes help- and meaningless once the track gets lost.

In present circumstances, the only way out is a multiple-speed or variable-geometry EU with a supranational core and an intergovernmental periphery. But such a solution is as much opposed as the allegedly intrusive Brussels bureaucracy by the Eastern outliers who prefer to have the cake and eat it at the same time. The lesson to be learned: evidently the rapid expansion was premature – and ultimately self-defeating. It does not even need the much-maligned Russian meddling...
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.