Analysts: Weimar Triangle key for Poland’s new role in EU

Weimar Triangle meeting. Bygdoszcz, May 2011. [Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland]

This article is part of our special report Poland: Ambitious achievers.

SPECIAL REPORT: Warsaw needs to articulate more clearly its expectations and policy interests in the context of the Weimar Triangle, a format grouping three large members of the EU, France, Poland and Germany, in order to maximise its political leverage in the Union and beyond, analysts told the EURACTIV network.

Tomorrow (10 September) Chancellor Angela Merkel will take part in the Bundestag’s memorial service on the occasion of the beginning of World War II on 1 September 1939. Polish President Bronis?aw Komorowski will take part as guest speaker. Komorowski’s attendance in Berlin comes in a long line of mutual high-level visits between the German and Polish government putting a spotlight on the excellent relations both countries maintain.

Views from Berlin

“One can truly say: German-Polish relations are as good as they have never been,” Cornelia Pieper told EURACTIV Germany. Since mid-August 2014, Pieper has been working as Consul General of Germany in Gda?sk on behalf of the Federal Foreign Office. In the last four years, Pieper was Coordinator of the Federal Government for German-Polish relations. From 2001 to 2005 she served as Secretary General and from 2005 to 2011 as Deputy National Chairman of the FDP.

“Over the years, I have watched the German-Polish relations grow and consolidate,” says Pieper. This was also reflected in very practical work. “If you think about the Polish EU Presidency [second half of 2011], there were many joint projects with Germany, which were also then realised,” mentioning among them the debt ceiling of 60% of GDP, which became part of the Stability and Growth Pact.

Pawe? Tokarski, expert on European Integration and polish foreign affairs from the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), also emphasises the excellent relations between the two countries. “The current state of the German-Polish relationship is quite perfect, especially after the election of Donald Tusk as prime minister,” Tokarski told EURACTIV Germany. According to Tokarski, Merkel and Tusk have been working together very closely. “After the election of Tusk to the post of Permanent President of the European Council, Poland is aware that close relations with Germany are a precondition of his leverage on Brussels politics,” Tokarski explains.

A closer relationship

Tusk and Merkel have a close working relationship, which many describe as a genuine friendship. Both of their mothers were born in Gda?sk, and a biography of the German chancellor gives details of her Polish ancestry and distant relatives.

Are there no points of criticism concerning the cooperation between the two countries? “There are certainly different views on one topic or another that are being discussed. But this is quite normal”, says Pieper. This would apply for example for infrastructure projects or energy policy. “Take [the fact that] Germany that set forth the ‘Energiewende’ [the German energy transition, the term describing a to shift to clean energy, reducing the country’s dependence on gas, coal and nuclear energy]. Poland is still very much thinking about fossil fuels. They are thinking of building a new nuclear power plant or about introducing fracking.” These are “clear differences” in energy policies, says Pieper. “It is necessary to discuss this.”

“Both countries have different approaches on energy policy, climate change and some issues around the internal market, but most of the interests are shared,” Tokarski adds. “Germany can also count on Poland in counterbalancing the anti-austerity coalition built by Paris and Rome. Poland knows not only the price of painful structural reforms but also the outcome. Currently it is one of the fastest growing EU economies.”

>> Read: Poland ‘can offer economic recipe’ to the EU

Germany too has carried out painful economic reforms initiated under former Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, and Merkel’s government is reaping the benefits.

The challenges of the Ukraine conflict

Tokarski sees the conflict in eastern Ukraine as challenging for the relationship between Poland and Germany. “Poland is pushing for a more offensive role of Germany in the conflict resolution, including tougher sanctions on Russia and weapons delivery to Ukraine. Germany instead sees diplomatic negotiations as the only possible way to end the conflict. Polish public opinion is also disappointed by a decision of not moving the NATO bases to the East, which to a large extent was caused by German fear of provoking Russia.”

In this context, Pieper is very much counting on the Weimar Triangle, which she says can play a key role in resolving the crisis. “For me, however, the emphasis on the question of Ukraine and better relations with Russia lies with Poland. Poland is the bridge to the countries east of its borders. Poland historically has been very affected by these countries, especially Russia – also in a negative sense.” 

“The outcome of the Weimar Triangle meetings could be greater,” Tokarski says. “While for Poland the Triangle is the key instrument to influence European politics, there is an impression in Warsaw that Germany and France are not always attaching greatest importance to the forum. On the other hand, Poland has to articulate its expectations and policy interests in the context of the Triangle more clearly in order to increase its policy output.”

Tokarski presumes the Weimar Triangle will stay a priority for Polish foreign policy – even after Tusk steps down as Prime Minister, no matter who will be in power. “However, the departure of Tusk poses a risk of a period of political instability in Poland, since the ruling party is concentrating solely around its leader Tusk and lacks a charismatic successor. When leaving for Brussels, Tusk leaves a power vacuum that may challenge Poland’s visibility abroad. But it is rather unlikely to have an adverse influence on relationship between Germany and Poland,” she said.

Since 1991, Poland has been working together closely with Germany and France as part of the Weimar Triangle. Within this framework, regular meetings are held at different levels. Deemed by some as “presumed dead” at one time or another, the Weimar Triangle experienced something of a revival in February 2014, when foreign ministers Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Laurent Fabius and Rados?aw Sikorski struggled to find a solution for the Ukrainian crisis in Kyiv.

‘A miracle’

After taking office in March 2012, Germany’s Federal President Joachim Gauck’s first trip abroad took him to Warsaw – unlike most of his predecessors whose first destination regularly was France. According to Sikorski, Poland valued this gesture very highly. “A country that elects a freedom fighter known for his resistance to communism as its head of state is not a threat to us Poles. That our bilateral relations are so excellent now certainly also has to do with the fact that the chancellor and the president are both from the former East Germany – they shared our experiences and can understand and sense what we are talking about.”

On 1 September of this year, Gauck took part at a meeting at the Westerplatte near Gdansk in Poland commemorating the outbreak of the Second World War when Hitler’s regime launched an attack on Poland 75 years ago. “If the relations between nations are marked so profoundly by injustice and pain, by arrogance and humiliation as they were between Germans and Poles, it is by no means inevitable that enmity will be transformed into reconciliation. I therefore regard the close ties which have developed between our two nations as a miracle,” Gauck said.

A French perspective

According to Vincent Pertusot,  head of the Brussels office of the French Institute for International Relations IFRI, before joining the EU, Poland was seen by Paris as an “outrageously Atlanticist country. ”  Also, the strong relationship with Germany was an impediment to a bilateral relationship with Paris.

Under the presidency of Nicolas Sarkozy [2007-2012], the relations between Paris and Warsaw passed through even more difficult times. “The French president showed a total lack of consideration for Poland, which has been very hard for relations between the two countries,” said Vincent Pertusot.

However, the two countries have strengthened their relationship for the past two years, starting when François Hollande was elected a president of the Republic in May 2012. The French President has already visited the Polish capital twice, and ministers of both countries have held many bilateral meetings.

Last week, French minister of defence, Jean-Yves Le Drian, was in to Poland for the Kielce Armament Show, in order to promote the French defence industry. Poland remains one of the only markets in Europe where there the French industry still finds major opportunities.

The revision  of  the EU posted workers directive has consolidated the Franco-Polish relations as political partners in Brussels. In 2011, 19% of posted workers in France were of Polish nationality, according to the labour ministry in Paris. By supporting a revision of the directive, Warsaw allowed Paris and Berlin to build a sufficient majority to get the deal done, despite opposition from the UK and other Eastern European countries.

At the diplomatic level, the relationship of France and Poland within the Weimar Triangle is experiencing some turbulence. “Behind the statements of intent, there are few promising initiatives and some differences of opinion,” Pertusot says. In his view, Poland needs to change its image of “junior partner”, and the Weimar triangle should weight more vis-à-vis the traditional Franco-German tandem.

On the diplomatic front, France and Poland are increasingly traded positions to achieve bigger goals. Lately, Hollande is said to have helped Tusk to win the Council President job. But in exchange, Poland has reportedly committed to stop putting the brakes on climate talks and contribute to the success of the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris.

Polish views regarding Germany…

Before 2004, when Poland joined the EU, the enlargement was a unifying goal for both Poland and Germany, which has allowed them to cooperate despite certain divisive issues, such as the compensations for the Germans exiled from Poland after WWII.

Yet, as Dr Sebastian P?óciennik, Head of the Programme European Union at Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM), noticed: “after completing the great, unifying goal of accession, a mundane reality has arrived, with its differing goals and interests”.

There have been attempts to find a new goal, yet often they only revealed the differing political objectives in Warsaw and Berlin. A test case has been the relations with the countries in Europe’s east, especially with Russia and Ukraine. “In this field, especially vis-à-vis Russia, the differences between Poland and Germany are clear,” P?óciennik says. And he does not believe that the eastern policy of both countries could be harmonised soon, as their interests, including economic interests are significantly different.

Both countries also differ significantly on the energy policy. Poland depends on coal. and so it is much less enthusiastic towards carbon limits and renewable energy sources. P?óciennik explains that Poland considers the German energy transition strategy as “unrealistic and threatening the economic growth in the EU”.

There are still many shared interests, though. Poland and Germany are very closely tied economically. Poland has provided cheap and skilled labour for the German companies while Germany is the most important market for Polish exports – one fourth of all the goods exported from Poland go to its Western neighbour

Poland, as opposed to Germany, has not adopted the EU’s common currency and thus stays out of many debates of crucial importance to Germany. P?óciennik sees it as a great hindrance in the mutual relations, as “staying outside the Eurozone means that Poland does not have a greater say in the debates about the macroeconomic stability, the banking union or helping to foster growth. This makes mutual relations less intense than many would wish”, he emphasized.

… and France

According to Warsaw, Polish-French relations have grown colder over the last two decades. The terms of Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy are regarded as the lowest point in Franco-Polish relations in modern history.

Yet, the election of François Hollande, though currently very unpopular in France, has brought a thaw in the mutual relations, says Miko?aj Dowgielewicz, former Secretary of State for European Affairs in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Poland, and currently Vice-Governor for Target Group Countries at Council of Europe Development Bank.

According to Dowgielewicz, Poland is not yet important enough to be noticed by France. Germany and the UK are the most important among the EU countries and Poland simply does not warrant that much interest in Paris.

Dowgielewicz also points out important policy differences between Paris and Warsaw. “The map the both countries see is completely different. For example, while for Poland, Russia is a significant point of focus for its foreign policy, for France it is primarily a source of energy resources and sometimes other economic contracts. But it is not main concern of Paris, nor a primary area of focus,” explains Dowgielewicz.

There are still some ties and shared goals between the two countries. For example, the economic ties are growing. French FDI in Poland has been valued in July 2014 as almost €25 billion. Furthermore, 97% of representatives of these companies would recommend Poland as a place to invest in.

One of the initiatives that is supported by both Warsaw and Paris is the Polish project of an Energy Union. While Hollande was careful in avoiding presenting the idea as a defence mechanism against Russian pressures, the Polish side was still happy in securing the support of France for the initiative.

Poland is also planning a new nuclear power plant which can offer an area of cooperation between the two countries, given the significant French dependence on this source of energy.  Yet, for Dowgielewicz, the easiest way of Poland increasing its influence in relationship vis-à-vis France would be joining the Eurozone, as in his words most of the issues important to France are related to the euro.

“If Poland could impact these issues, it would make it much more interesting to France,” Dowgielewicz said.

Poland could join the eurozone faster, if the requirement for the zloty to be in the ERM-2 exchange rate mechanism were waived.

>> Read: Poland in no rush to join euro, wants entry on own terms

The ‘Weimar triangle’ refers to a loose grouping of Poland, Germany and France, intended to promote cooperation between these countries in the EU. It was established in 1991. Meetings take place mostly in the form of summits, the latest of which occurred in February 2011. The Weimar triangle also includes lower level meetings, such as annual meetings of foreign ministers.

Germany and Poland have a long and very varied history, the low point of which was reached during the Second World War.

The relationship between the two countries after the war was highly complicated due to the heavy burden of the invasion of the Wehrmacht in 1939, the murder of millions of Polish Jews and the expulsion of Germans from Polish territory after the end of the war.

German-Polish relations improved substantially after the fall of the Berlin Wall and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Poland's Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki agreed to what was effectively a commitment to the Oder-Neisse Line, and signed a Polish-German border agreement in 1990. This was followed by a number of bilateral agreements displaying a broadening and deepening of the relations as well as numerous symbolic gestures from German and Polish politicians, such as Federal President Roman Herzog's participation in the celebrations on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of the Warsaw Uprising in 1994.

Irritation and mutual alienation started emerging after the departure of Kohl in 1998, who had enjoyed a high reputation in Poland as a "European German". First there were historical and political debates, which were then followed by foreign and security policy issues. During the Iraq War, Poland sided with the USA, cooling down the relationship to Germany and a low point was reached during Jaroslaw Kaczy?ski's tenure as prime minister of Poland (2005-2007).

It was not until 2007, when Donald Tusk became prime minister, that there is an easing of tension and current ties between Berlin and Warsaw are widely regarded as being at their peak. The German government now repeatedly refers to Poland as a 'key partner' of Germany in the European Union along with France. In its coalition agreement, the Federal Government declares the will to “further strengthen our partnership with Poland and develop the diverse relations with our neighbours”. 

Poland is of considerable importance for German foreign trade, ranking tenth among Germany’s trading partners for years now. For two decades, Germany has been Poland’s most important trading partner by far. More than a quarter of all Polish exports go to Germany.  

Polish-French relations have deep roots, becoming relevant since the time of the French revolution of 1789 and the reign of Napoleon I [1804-1815]. Poland and France were allies during the interval between World War I and World War II. Relations have cooled down during the Cold War period, but greatly improved since the fall of communism.

France is the largest contributor of foreign direct investment in Poland. The French companies with the largest presence in Poland include Orange, Vivendi, Carrefour, Casino, Crédit Agricole, Saint Gobain and Auchan.

Controversy was caused by the phrase "Polish Plumber", which appeared in France around 2005. Around one million ethnic Poles live in France. 

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