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Europe

Merkel all smiles after Warsaw visit

German Chancellor Angela Merkel arrived in Warsaw this week apparently set to admonish the Polish government for undermining democracy. But she left - as visitors to Warsaw are prone to - with more friends than enemies.

The Beata Szydlo government's attitudes to Germany have softened since the Polish prime minister's early days in office in late 2015, when she strongly criticized Germany's refugee policy and looked to London - pre-Brexit - as a bulwark against what it saw as a Franco-German dominated EU.

Among several areas discussed, the two leaders agreed this week that Russian sanctions should be kept in place at least until progress is made with implementation of the Minsk Protocol aimed at halting the war in eastern Ukraine. Warsaw's fears of a two-speed Europe were also assuaged - for the time being at least.

The Polish government has been criticized by the European Commission for breaches of democratic norms in relation to its highest court, among other things, and being close to Merkel might help in its attempts to appease the EU executive body.   

PiS and CDU: natural friends?

Civil Platform (PO), the Law and Justice (PiS) government's pre-2015 predecessor, established close relations with Germany under Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU). "The bad taste left after Gerhard Schroeder's open and naïve pro-Russian stance left immediately with the arrival of the new leadership in Berlin," Jan Mus, a foreign policy analyst in Warsaw, told DW.

"German Conservatives and Christian-Democrats have always tended to look upon Poland in more favorable colors than the Social Democrats," Mus continues. "The tolerant stance of leftist European parties towards the Soviet Union and later towards Russia aroused a lot of suspicion and anxiety in Poland."

Donald Trump und Wladimir Putin

Donald Trump und Wladimir Putin

"Kaczynski's anti-German rhetoric falls perhaps under the saying 'the dogs are barking, but the caravan keeps rolling.' Berlin does not want to 'lose' Poland and Poland does not want to lose access to European funds. A win-win situation for both sides," Mus goes on. Jarolaw Kaczynski (pictured top with German Chancellor Angela Merkel) is the leader of Poland's ruling PiS party.

"Despite widespread media criticism of Kaczyński and his government, it is difficult to find any real chauvinist or nationalistic approach in their international dealings," he adds.

"PiS has in fact been taken aback by the negative press coverage it has received abroad. The party leadership does not see its actions as deviating from European standards. PiS cannot be described as an anti-EU party or be compared with populist anti-EU movements in other countries."

The Russians are coming, aren't they?

Poland's foreign minister said on Thursday that it is a priority for Poland to strengthen cooperation between the US and EU in the area of security and that he was concerned about the "aggressive policies of Russia in Eastern Europe." This after US President Donald Trump started a debate about the softening of Russian sanctions.

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo (L) at a welcoming ceremony for US troops in Poland as part of NATO build-up, Zagan, Poland, January 14, 2017

Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo (l.) at a welcoming ceremony for US troops in Poland as part of NATO build-up, Zagan, Poland, January 14, 2017

Russia, in turn, views the deployment of NATO troops and military hardware to the Baltic states, Poland and Germany as a threat.

"This deployment is of course a threat for us," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexei Meshkov said this week. "And who said that it will end with this? We do not have such information. For the first time since World War II we see German soldiers along our borders."

Meshkov's comments follow the US deploying thousands of soldiers and heavy weaponry to Poland, the Baltic states and southeastern Europe in its biggest build-up since the Cold War. German troops and armor are also due to reinforce Lithuania this month as part of NATO's plans, which are designed to reassure European countries after Russia's 2014 annexation of Ukraine's Crimean Pensinsula.

Kaczynski also called this week for Europe to become a "nuclear superpower," in an interview with Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung daily. He also wants Poland to be included in the US nuclear defense system, he told the Gazeta Polska newspaper.

Under NATO's Article 5 collective defense agreement, the US nuclear umbrella already protects NATO allies including Poland. The US nuclear arsenal in Europe includes around 200 tactical weapons stationed in Germany, Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey.

EU key player

Kaczynski has made clear in statements that he hopes for a strengthening of the EU, but that its shape should be based on an intergovernmental rather than a communitarian model.

"When PiS was elected in October 2015, Poland's new government shifted its foreign policy," Judy Dempsey, the Editor in chief at Carnegie Europe, wrote.

"After a long spell of deepening political ties with Germany under the former coalition led by PO, PiS looked to London as a counterweight to Berlin. For Warsaw, it was Britain that would check the powers of the Commission, the EU's executive. It was Britain that would try to claw back more powers to the member states," Dempsey explained.

Britain's decision on June 23 to leave the EU thus robbed Poland and the other members of the Visegrad Group - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia - of a major ally.

Poland as such may end up turning to Merkel to defend its interests. An EU without Britain also has the potential to weaken transatlanticism in the EU, which is why Merkel's role will become increasingly important for Warsaw.

Merkel, however, said recently that European leaders may commit to a union of "different speeds" when they make a major declaration on its future at a summit in Rome next month.

Warsaw fears that economic integration could now be sped up and that the eurozone countries will forge ahead by working toward a fiscal and banking union.

Kaczynski told Polish media that a so-called two-speed Europe would lead to the "breakdown, and in fact the liquidation, of the EU in its current sense."

 

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