Germany has been one of Europe’s strongest advocates for Poland, first when the country was trying to break free from the grip of the Soviet Union and later helping it gain admission to the European Union and benefit from the EU’s generous economic assistance. Many Germans felt their country owed a special debt to Poles because of the terrible legacy of World War II.
But suddenly Germany and the European Union are in open confrontation with the Polish government in a dispute over the rule of law in the country. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is leading the charge against the government in Warsaw.
“I can no longer keep silent,” she told journalists at her annual press conference on Tuesday. “A European Union that forsakes the rule of law is no longer the European Union.”
“Threats won’t work if they come from the mouth of a German politician, because Poles will then fall back on their stereotypical memories.”
Ms. Merkel followed up her tough remarks with a meeting in Berlin Wednesday with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, who has warned the Poles that if they move forward with their plan to restrict the independence of the country’s courts, the European Union would have no choice but to strip Poland of its voting rights in the Council of Europe. Her statement on Tuesday was seen by European diplomats as providing crucial political support for Mr. Juncker’s position.
The diplomats said after the meeting that a judicial case against Poland for violating Europe’s basic values now seems more likely if the Polish government presses ahead.
At the meeting in Berlin, Ms. Merkel and Mr. Juncker also hardened their stand against Turkey’s authoritarian leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, using trade issues to punish the country for its mass arrests following a coup attempt last year. Diplomats said Germany and Austria had decided to shelve plans to include Turkey in the European customs union, and other European countries have agreed to go along with their decision.
“Turkey is moving away from Europe,” Mr. Juncker said in a speech before meeting Ms. Merkel.
But the growing rift with Poland may pose a greater problem for the EU. Germany and Poland share a border, and because it is an EU member, Polish workers can travel freely without visas to work in Germany, often competing with German laborers such plumbers, house painters and craftsmen. Turkish citizens don’t have that access.
“Unfortunately, Brussels and Berlin are not going to be able to solve the problem in Poland,” said Igor Lukes, a professor of international relations at Boston University. “Threats won’t work if they come from the mouth of a German politician, because Poles will then fall back on their stereotypical memories of what happened in 1939.”
Mr. Lukes said that on a recent trip to Poland he found signs that the country was almost evenly split between young, Europe-focused urban professionals and rural people who felt left behind by economic development and were nostalgic for a past when life had certainty even though living conditions were fairly awful.
“Because of membership in the European Union, Poland’s economy is doing really well,” Mr. Lukes said. “But that’s mainly in the cities. It’s not so apparent in the towns and it’s invisible in the countryside.”
Thanks to a tough law and order message that sounded increasingly populist, the Law and Justice party, which is known by its Polish initials PiS, won an outright majority in Poland’s parliament in 2015, defeating the liberal Civic Platform. With control of the parliament, PiS passed three laws that would end judicial independence and allow parliament to name judges.
There has been an international outcry over the measures aimed at judges, prompting President Andrzej Duda, a former PiS member, to veto two of the bills in late July. But there is continuing concern that parliament will resurrect the issue and force the adoption of the judicial changes.
Poland, along with Hungary and the Slovakia, were angered by Ms. Merkel’s efforts to get more EU countries to take Middle Eastern refugees during the refugee crisis.
As a result Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who also leads a populist party, has said he would not vote to condemn Poland for its actions involving judges. An attempt to block Poland from voting in the Council of Europe requires unanimous support from the EU heads of government.
Ruth Berschens has been Handelblatt’s bureau chief in Brussels since 2009. Till Hoppe reports on politics for Handelsblatt. Charles Wallace is an editor for Handelsblatt Global in New York. To contact the authors: Berschens@handelsblatt.com , firstname.lastname@example.org, C.Wallace@extern.vhb.com.