I can still remember how, in a late-night discussion at the Brussels Forum in March 2013, Estonian President Toomas Ilves urged the audience to read an article entitled “Why Poland is the new France for Germany” that had been published a few months earlier by my former ECFR colleagues Ulrike Guérot and Konstanty Gebert. The Civic Platform government of Donald Tusk – which the article said was “committed to joining the Euro around 2016” – had put behind it the fraught relationship that had existed between the two countries while Jarosław Kaczyński was prime minister between 2006 and 2007. As a result, the article suggested, some in Germany – which, in the context of the euro crisis, was increasingly frustrated with France’s perceived failure to reform its economy – increasingly saw Poland as its closest and most important partner in the European Union.
Although that was only three years ago, it seems like a different era. Poland is now not likely to join the euro any time soon. The new Law and Justice party government, which came to power last October, has made controversial changes to the constitutional court and limited media freedom – many even see a parallel with Viktor Orbán’s Hungary. It has also taken a much more confrontational approach to Germany. The new foreign minister, Witold Waszczykowski, has said that “Germany cares more about Russia’s interests than the security of central and eastern European countries” and that Poland should cease being a German “vassal”, as Piotr Buras, another former ECFR colleague, describes. In Germany, Poland is now seen as a problem rather than a solution. Today, when Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier visited Warsaw, he expressed German “concerns” about developments there.
It seems that Germany keeps being disappointed by its partners. In the context of the euro crisis, the central and eastern European countries in general and Poland in particular seemed to many in Germany to be a model for the south. But since the late summer of last year, they have become Germany’s biggest opponents in the refugee crisis – now by far the biggest priority for Berlin. Thus the EU member states that a few years ago seemed to be the most closely aligned with Germany – in my book, The Paradox of German Power, published in 2014, I even referred to the Visegrad Four as “a kind of geo-economic equivalent of a German sphere of influence” – are now perceived in Germany as constituting an “ungrateful region”, as one analyst put it in a discussion on Poland I attended today.
What also particularly strikes me are the similarities between the discourse on Germany in in Poland and Italy – where I spent a few days last week. In recent weeks, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has become increasingly outspoken in his criticism of Germany. In an interview with the Financial Times in December, he said that “Europe has to serve all 28 countries, not just one”. He also has an op-ed in the Guardian today, in which he wrote that the “fixation on austerity” in the EU is “destroying growth”. There is also much anger in Italy about Germany’s approach to the refugee crisis: Italians complain that it was only when refugees began pouring into Germany that it supported a reform of the Dublin Agreement, which requires refugees to claim asylum in the first EU member state in which they arrive. Until then, someone told me in Rome, Italians felt “abandoned”.
Another issue that links criticisms of Germany from the east and south of Europe is NordStream II, the new gas pipeline that largely follows the route of the original NordStream pipeline through between Germany and Russia – in other words, bypassing Poland. The original pipeline was long a source of friction between Germany and Poland – a symbol of a “special relationship” between Germany and Russia. In Italy, there is much anger that Nord Stream II is going ahead while the European Commission blocked South Stream – another pipeline that was to bring Russian gas to Europe through Italy. In his article today, Renzi said there were “double standards” on energy: one rule for Germany and another for other EU member states. The implication is that not only is Germany pursuing its own national interest rather than the European interest but that the EU institutions are helping it to do so.
The discourse in Italy and Poland illustrates the new political geography of Europe in which everything seems to centre on Germany. In both the east and the south, criticism of Germany also immediately invokes the language of empire. For example, Orbán accused Germany of “moral imperialism” – a parallel to accusations of “fiscal imperialism” in the context of the euro crisis. In a panel discussion in Rome last week to launch the Italian edition of my book, the German ambassador to Italy said she did not understand the concept of “semi-hegemony” that I (and others including Jürgen Habermas and historians such as Dominik Geppert and Andreas Rödder) use to describe Germany’s role in Europe. In simple terms, what it means is this: while Germany is unable to solve Europe’s problems – as a hegemon would be able to – it gets the blame.