Berlin, Warsaw Head for Cool Spell | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 11.10.2005
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Berlin, Warsaw Head for Cool Spell

Strong winds of political change are blowing through the EU's two largest members and neighbors, Germany and Poland. And all signs point toward a definite chill in the air between the two.

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The right combination? Germany's Merkel with Poland's Donald Tusk

Poland's recent swift and clear change in government has jarred sharply with Germany's electoral stalemate and ensuing coalition talks.

Poles voted in two center-right parties, the populist Law and Justice Party (PiS), which won the election, and their coalition partner the pro-market Civil Platform (PO).

Germans, on the other hand, delivered an ambivalent message with no party winning an outright majority. The result has been a so-called "grand coalition" between the conservative Christian Democrats and their sister Bavarian party, the Christian Social Union, and the Social Democrats.

Though Poles have yet to elect a president, there's no question that political maneuverings in Warsaw have indeed been much smoother than those in Berlin. But, that still hasn't stopped some from fretting over the future course of Warsaw's foreign policy and in particular its relations with neighboring Germany.

"The German factor"

Die Gebrüder Kaczynski

Spot the difference: Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski

Signs thus far haven't been encouraging. The center-right populist Law and Justice Party (PiS), led by identical twins Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski (photo), which won the parliamentary vote, adopted a nationalistic tone during the election campaign, pushing for a stronger role for Poland in the EU and a weakening of Franco-German dominance.

The twins also took a tough line on Germany and Russia. Lech Kaczynski, currently mayor of Warsaw and who alarmed the EU earlier this year by banning a gay parade, has called the two countries "dangerous opponents," while his brother Jaroslaw said Germany was less of a partner, but rather a threat.

"What we're seeing is a clear comeback of the 'German factor' in Poland. That's evident in the thinking and actions of the politicians," said Kai-Olaf Lang, Poland expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. "There's definitely going to be a cooling of ties between the two countries."

Dieter Bingen, head of the German-Poland Institute in Darmstadt agreed.

"The nationalist-populism of the Kaczynski brothers can be interpreted as almost anti-German," he said.

A string of irritants

At the same time experts point out that the current tough rhetoric in Poland towards Germany comes at a time when relations aren't the best anyway.

"German-Polish ties in the first 10 to 12 years following the fall of communism in 1989/90 were largely a successful reconciliation story on most counts -- historically, politically and in a European context," Lang explained. "But the model has entered a difficult phase in the last three to four years."

There have been many reasons.

Poland's strong support of the US-led war in Iraq in 2002, the row over the EU constitution and German opposition to opening up its labor markets to Polish workers have all soured bilateral relations.

German plans to build a controversial center as a memorial for the millions of Germans who were driven out in 1945 from formerly German areas given to Poland by Stalin at the end of World War II has only served to worsen ties.

Wladimir Putin besucht Gerhard Schröder

Best of pals: Putin and Schröder

And German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder's close relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the sealing of a controversial five-billion-dollar energy contract between the two to build a gas pipeline under the Baltic Sea, bypassing the Baltic states and Poland, to bring Russian gas to Germany has proved the final straw.

Poland last month slammed the deal as a political show of force by Putin and a campaign tool by Schröder.

Reconciliation on some fronts

But, the impending shuffle in Germany's political leadership, experts say, might just remove some of the stumbling blocks.

"A grand coalition in Germany is a big chance for German-Polish relations because the Social Democrats who will have the foreign ministry portfolio, don't support the controversial center for wartime expulsions," Cornelius Ochmann, an expert on Eastern Europe at the Bertelsmann Foundation.

But others point out that it won't be as easy to undo the damage done by the Russo-German gas pipeline deal.

"That's going to continue to be a sticking point between the two. In Poland the deal is seen as a defeat both on the economic and foreign policy front and Germany is accused of disloyalty," said Lang of the SWP.

"Since Polish politics is strongly historic, emotions are very intense on the issue," he said, adding that Poland's focus on close ties and a strategic partnership with the US is also meant to boost it as a regional counterweight to Russia in a post-Soviet world.

Ray of hope

Despite obvious differences between Germany and Poland, analysts say that there's still a good chance that bilateral ties may not reach the depths that some fear.

"Firstly, there's a solid foundation that German-Polish relations are based on and both sides realize the necessity of cooperation. Besides, Berlin's policy towards Poland has always been one of continuity," said Lang.

Dieter Bingen said that that much of the recent problems between Germany and Poland had largely been due to the failure to communicate properly.

"Much has been said, even by Kaczynski, in the heat of the election campaign that have led to a straining of relations. A lot of emotions have been at play and people will sober up once the election fever is over."

Tusk vs. Kaczynski

But, much more importantly, others point out that the future of bilateral ties crucially depends on who becomes the next Polish president -- who, unlike the German one, has a say in shaping foreign policy.

The choice is between Donald Tusk of the PO and Lech Kaczynski of the PiS who will face off in a re-run of the presidential election in two weeks.

Merkel in Warschau

Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk lay wreaths at the Warsaw Uprising Monument in Warsaw

Experts point out that the PO, unlike PiS, is much more forward looking, moderate and pragmatic and that its presidential candidate Tusk already enjoys good contacts with German chancellor-designate Angela Merkel's conservative alliance.

"If Tusk becomes president, German-Polish ties will get a new lease on life," said Ochmann.

"But, if Kaczynski wins, then it's going to be a real danger not just for German-Polish relations but for Poland as a whole in the EU," he said.

"Then we may really have to begin worrying."

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