28th Sep 2023


Scholz's first job? Work with Poland on Belarus crisis

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Can the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, create a federal Europe? The French diplomat and one of the founding fathers of the European project, Jean Monnet, wrote that "Europe will be forged in crisis". As Germany enters a new phase in its political history, the European Union faces a fresh foreign policy challenge on its doorstep that will test its credentials as a cohesive organisation.

Alexander Lukashenko, the president of Belarus, engineered a migration crisis on Poland's eastern frontier deliberately to destabilise the EU, in retaliation for sanctions imposed on his regime after it cracked down on the Belarusian opposition.

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However, the diverging readings of the situation between Poland and Germany suggest work still needs to be done to realise Monnet's aspirations for Europe.

Berlin believes it has done enough to reduce tensions at the border. In a meeting of ambassadors to the EU, the German official, Michael Clauss, stated the situation had stabilised after conversations took place between Lukashenko and the then German chancellor, Angela Merkel.

The migrants held at the Bruzgi-Kuznica border crossing in northeastern Poland have been moved to a logistics centre while some have been repatriated.

Merkel's interior minister, Horst Seehofer, insisted Berlin always consulted Poland before taking any action on this issue in a press conference in Warsaw.

But despite German efforts to reassure its neighbour, Poland remains fearful of the threat facing its eastern border.

The Polish ambassador to the EU, Andrzej Sados, rebuked his German opposite number in informing the meeting that the Merkel-Lukashenko negotiations failed to prevent a further infringement on the border.

Poland's prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, even issued a warning against Germany at holding talks with Belarus. He argued Merkel's discussions with Minsk were counterproductive since they risked legitimising the Lukashenko regime.

It is worth noting that the border crisis comes amid a complicated relationship between Poland and Germany. While trade has boomed between the two countries, political relations have suffered since the Law and Justice Party came to power in Poland in 2015.

In Warsaw, there are some who think Germany still owes Poland Second World War reparations. Moreover, German support for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline and a liberal EU migration policy under the Merkel government have sown seeds of distrust.

Why is the German-Polish clashing assessments a problem for the EU?

For Poland, the traumatic memories of its partitions and invasions at the hands of Germany and Russia mean the importance it attaches to its border cannot be underestimated. In excluding Poland from talks with Lukashenko, Merkel risked reigniting old Polish fears of being marginalised by its two biggest neighbours.

Notwithstanding Poland's historical concerns, it is unclear whether the EU is in a position to reassure Polish border sensitivities.

The EU Commission rejected a European Council proposal to finance Polish border security. Support for Poland in the EU was further complicated with the commission's long-running dispute with Warsaw over its controversial judicial reforms. Poland received a letter from Brussels starting the informal process of triggering a new mechanism designed to withhold EU funds to member states who violate core EU values.

Moreover, the official EU response to the crisis focused on imposing fresh sanctions on Belarus rather than confronting the deteriorating security situation at the Polish border.

In a meeting of EU foreign ministers, it was agreed that the new measures should target Belarusian airlines, travel agencies, and individuals facilitating illegal migration. Although these steps are important, the question over how the EU should respond to Poland's vulnerable geopolitical position remains to be answered.

The combination of Merkel's decision to exclude Poland from her talks with Lukashenko and EU ambivalence towards the Polish government during the crisis risks returning to the east-west EU split during the migration crisis in 2015.

So far, only Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have taken tangible steps to support the Polish government in defending its border. The Baltic states and Poland agreed to support one another if either one of them triggers Article 4 of the North Atlantic Treaty. This is not surprising for historical reasons. Like Poland, the Baltic States experienced the trauma of Russian and German occupations during the 20th century.

Why German-Polish solidarity is needed

The severity of the situation at the Polish border injects a degree of urgency into the role of Scholz as the leader of the EU's largest economy. It seems clear that the crisis is part of a wider Russian strategy to cause instability within Europe.

Russia has been mobilising troops along the eastern Ukrainian border in a sign of a potential invasion in the coming months and withholding gas deliveries to pressure Germany into approving Nord Stream 2.

As the two most significant EU players in the crisis, it is vital that the new government in Germany and the Law and Justice government in Poland find common ground to convene a European coalition and formulate a common EU strategy on the issue of European security.

The strategy will need to confront the security challenge facing Poland whilst at the same time upholding the values of human rights and international law.

This may help maintain the east-west cohesion of the EU at a time of crisis as well as demonstrate to Lukashenko that his provocations will not undermine the values that bind Europe together.

A tough task lies ahead, however. Merkel leaves a complicated German-Polish relationship for Scholz to navigate. As things stand, Moscow remains in a strong position to turn EU countries against each other and Monnet's European vision may have to wait.

Author bio

Hugo Blewett-Mundy is an MA researcher from the UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies specialising in post-Soviet Russia and eastern Europe, and a writer for Lossi 36.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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