Proximity to Germany has some obvious advantages, not least helping Poland withstand the euro-crisis. Yet, it has drawbacks too, and if nothing changes in German European policy after the election, Poland’s may have to. The reason is simple: Poles have benefited from behaviour on the part of the current German government which have been costly to the EU as a whole. Poland is aware of the drawbacks in Germany’s approach and is in a position to offset them.
Of course, this is not an exercise in bashing the current German government – no bystander can envy its position in leading the bloc through its current crisis. However, certain traits have emerged that have proved difficult for the EU to absorb. Five examples of how Germany’s approach to the Eurozone crisis has been ‘less difficult’ for Poland than for other member states: First, and most notably, there is the problem of Germany’s strategic vacuum. As analysts like Ulrike Guerot complain, the current Black-Yellow government has resisted the pressure to set out a clear plan for the resolution of the Eurozone crisis, let alone for handling the attendant shift in international relations. Instead, it has preferred pragmatic muddling through. This exasperates many capitals and frightens the markets, but it has certain benefits for Poland.
After all, this approach to Eurozone governance has prevented permanent disparities appearing between Eurozone and non-Eurozone governments, and whilst it may have seen the erosion of parity between EU governments if not MEPs, it has introduced no firm new principles which permanently side-line Poland. Instead, Warsaw has been able to secure safeguards regarding its inclusion and the question of the timetable for its Eurozone accession has not been politicised.
More than this, the German strategic vacuum has been at least partly filled by Polish thinking. This is particularly true of those policy areas where Berlin has a wilful blind-spot. Poland is sometimes termed a ‘plug-in’ state in Berlin, with Germany providing the brawn and Poland the brains. Poland has thus guided Germany into improving relations with its eastern neighbours and sharpening its relations with Russia.
Second, there has been Germany’s failure to tackle regional antagonisms within the EU. The old entente between northern and southern Europe is breaking down. Germany may now be protective of its relationship to France, but the times when it would compromise with Paris in order to bring in the south seem to be receding. Southerners go so far as to complain that Germany is laying waste to their economies as a means to weaken France and pressure it to reform.
Germany is widely agreed to have been a prime beneficiary of the Euro and even of the loans to stricken member states. However, the economic benefits have not trickled down and analysts like Sebastian Dullien point out that Germans both take undue pride in the accident of having the right manufacturing portfolio and resent the lack of funding in their own country’s infrastructure. Poland, however, is not resented in Germany.
By contrast, Poland is enjoying the fruits of Germany’s ‘return to the East’, long predicted by analysts. Following German reunification, the locus of European politics has moved. The shift from Bonn to Berlin was also a shift from Brussels, Rome, Madrid, Paris and London. As a result, the old Franco-German relationship, and the former leadership role of the ‘Big 3’, has increasingly been replaced by a ‘Weimar trio’ of France, Germany and Poland, and even a Polish-German tandem.
Third, there is the current German readiness to sideline difficult member states. Under pressure of events, this government has been quite intolerant of dissent. The UK above all has discovered this to its cost. Although the creation of the fiscal compact has been put down to France’s long-standing dislike of Anglo-Saxon influence, for instance, the real reasons lay in Berlin: Berlin wanted treaty change, and London stood in its way.
After all, treaty change in the EU is and always has been initiated by a simple majority of heads and state and government, and British attempts to prevent it have been overruled in the past. This time, however, Berlin - ostensibly respecting British wishes - sponsored a new legal arrangement outside the EU framework. This parallel structure to which euro members may resort, puts non-signatory Britain at a permanent disadvantage. Again, Poland has been able to adapt.
The UK has forfeited Polish affections. Its long failure to take Poland seriously as a partner on Eurozone affairs, its increasing euroscepticism, its hostility towards the principle of free movement and to home affairs policies of key importance to Poland, not to mention its flat-footed triumphalism over the next EU multiannual financial framework, have all taken their toll on the relationship with Poland, which has seen its star rise as the UK’s plummets.
Fifth, there has been Germany’s resort to intergovernmentalism. In her 2010 Bruges speech, Chancellor Merkel set out the Union Method, in which the member states would play a leading role compared to the European Commission and Parliament. As the think tank Policy Network commented shortly afterwards, this essentially entailed a series of Franco-German summits with France very much in the follower role. For Poland, this was not the disaster it might once have been.
When it first joined the EU, Poland clearly viewed the supranational institutions as guarantors of its rights and influence. Back then, though, it was very much under the tutelage of the established members and players. Today, it is well able to play a constructive role of its own. The shift to intergovernmentalism, coupled with its own relative economic health and the internal gridlock of the ‘old’ member states, have combined to give it a leading role in the EU.
And yet, despite these five ‘upgrades’, Poland remains acutely aware of the trade-offs involved. It has achieved a lead role but in an increasingly hobbled EU. Moreover, the benefits that it has accrued from these developments have been secured only because the government in Warsaw has played an exceptionally good game, manoeuvring its way through the treacherous waters of differentiated integration, German power and European strategic constipation.
Oftentimes, it is Poland that has most fiercely railed against these developments, only later trying to make the most of things. Warsaw is acutely aware that Germany’s strategic blindspots are bad for Europe and ultimately bad for it, that it requires firm principles ensuring its inclusion in decision-making rather than a mere absence of principles excluding it, that the resort to intergovernmentalism or even divide-and-rule would set a dangerous precedent.
Since most analysts agree that the likelihood of a change of style from Berlin after the election is low, the question is much more how other countries will change. In this context, much will depend on the continued quality of Polish strategic thinking, the effort to upgrade relations with France, Italy and Spain and to forge an East-South consensus on issues like neighbourhood policy, the recent overtures from London, and, of course, the calibre of the Poles chosen to fill seats in the supranational institutions, the Parliament and Commission in 2014.