Arndt Freytag von Loringhoven is a senior adviser at Berlin Global Advisors. He is a former German Ambassador to Poland.
As Ukraine’s staunchest supporter, Poland’s place both in Europe and the world has been transformed. And with United States President Joe Biden recently completing his second visit to the Polish capital — even though he’s yet to visit Berlin or Paris — Europe’s heart, so it seems, now beats in Warsaw.
Yet, the Polish government’s ongoing nationalist, illiberal policies continue to undermine Europe’s unity at the very same time.
From a personal perspective, as a former German Ambassador to Poland, the most painful — and counterproductive — part of Polish policy is its antagonism toward my country. And if Europe is to succeed in beating Russian aggression, Warsaw and Berlin must learn to work together.
Before Russia’s invasion, U.S.-Polish relations had hit rock bottom. As a presidential candidate, Biden cited Poland alongside Belarus as a country where democracy was under threat. And together with Hungary, Poland was Europe’s problem child.
Today, it has become the star student.
Poland led the lobbying effort to impose tough sanctions against Russia and to back Ukraine with strong political, economic and military assistance. It is the main conduit for military supplies into Ukraine and has donated massive military aid, including 300 tanks from its own stocks. Polish leaders were also among the first to travel to Kyiv, when artillery was still shelling the city. And the country supports Ukraine’s early accession to the European Union.
Unlike many others, Poland can claim moral leadership too. It has long warned against the dangers of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s imperialism, as opposed to Germany and other Western countries. It built a pipeline to Norway to replace Russian gas and started beefing up its military before the war began. Warsaw is now in line to bring its defense budget up to 4 percent of its GDP — twice the NATO benchmark — as well as increase the size of its army from 114,000 to 300, 000 troops.
Poland has even become a “humanitarian superpower” now, to quote U.S. Ambassador Mark Brzezinski. In stark contrast to its previous firm refusal to accept refugees in 2015 and — via Belarus — 2021, the country has provided shelter to over 1.5 million Ukrainian refugees, a shining example of compassion and empathy.
But there’s another side to the story as well.
Poland has always put national sovereignty before European solidarity. And despite the understandable historical reasons behind this, it is an attitude that obstructs building a strong EU, which will be needed to guarantee the Continent´s security and prosperity.
Critically, Poland’s present government has attacked a fundamental pillar of the EU — rule of law. Eroding the independence of judges and undermining the impartiality of the courts, the country’s “legal Polexit” rejects the primacy of European law. And this dangerous “Poland-first” policy will continue if the present government is reelected later this year.
Another danger is the country’s deteriorating relations with Germany.
German-bashing remains a hallmark of the governing Law and Justice (PiS) party, with its leader Jarosław Kaczyński accusing Berlin of trying to create a “Fourth Reich” via Brussels. In 2021, the Polish government even published a series of campaign posters depicting German representatives against a backdrop of swastikas and Nazi murders. It would be difficult to find a similarly hateful attack from one EU member against another in the bloc’s entire history.
Later, when Chancellor Olaf Scholz announced an increase in Germany’s defense budget by €100 billion — a move widely welcomed across NATO — Kaczynski asked, possibly rhetorically, if the spending was directed against Russia, or against Poland.
Since Russia’s invasion, the PiS government has also beefed up its campaign to claim €1.3 trillion in World War II reparations. The constant anti-German drumbeat has negatively influenced Polish public opinion, reaching a point where Polish politicians now avoid being seen in public with Germans. In this election year, Poland prefers to portray Germany as an enemy rather than an ally.
Meanwhile, it is important to remember the Polish government had attempted to create a Europe-wide club of nationalist, Euroskeptic parties as well. Two months before Russia’s invasion, Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki convened a meeting of 16 right-wing leaders, many of them Putin friends or apologists. And on the day of the Warsaw summit, France’s Marine Le Pen claimed Ukraine was “of course, in Russia’s sphere of influence.” Putin must have loved it.
All this aside, as a German, I admire Poland’s clear vision and action on Russia and Ukraine. But long-term security in Europe will require the country to help foster unity in the Western camp, which, in turn, will require it to fall in line on rule of law and reconcile with its European allies — including Germany.
It’s tragic that German-Polish relations have soured precisely as Germany has scrapped its once sacrosanct Ostpolitik. Indeed, today, Germany and Poland’s visions vis-à-vis Russia, Ukraine and the future of European security are more aligned than they have ever been.
German-Polish relations are as critical to Europe now as German-French relations were after 1945 — which means Germany needs to speed up the implementation of its Zeitenwende, and Poland needs to return to a policy of cooperation with its Western neighbor.
Together, we should be developing strategies for the reconstruction of Ukraine and the strengthening of NATO’s eastern flank. It’s a golden opportunity that shouldn’t be wasted.