The recent crisis over vote-weighting in the European Council revealed the absence of German-Polish reconciliation in the post-Cold War, post-enlargement era. The tensions go deeper than the usual intra-European wrangling; they reflect a profound and growing disconnect between German and Polish visions for the integration project. Fueled by a resurgence of historical consciousness in Poland and the reappearance of great power aspirations in Germany, this disconnect is likely to outlast both the four-year ceasefire brokered by Chancellor Angela Merkel and the remaining tenure of the current Polish leadership.
The result—a running feud between the EU’s largest western and eastern members—is something that neither Europe nor America can afford. Warsaw’s desire to lock in the Treaty of Nice and Berlin’s conflicting preference for population-based voting could paralyze EU integration for years to come, undermining two long-standing US interests: the need to ensure that Germany’s ambitions remain fully absorbed within EU structures and the quest for Western unity vis-à-vis an increasingly assertive Russia.
To prevent this, Germany and Poland should seek fundamental political rapprochement. With support from the United States, Warsaw and Berlin should devise a strategy for deepening bilateral ties and forestalling future conflict. As a model, they should look to an earlier episode in intra-European fence-mending: the post-World War II Franco-German rapprochement and its offspring, the European Coal and Steel Community. From this example, three underlying principles are potentially useful for today:
1. Think long-term.
After World War II, many French leaders wanted heavy compensation from Germany for France’s wartime losses. The now-famous Schuman Plan, which deepened France’s ties with Germany through the pooling of coal and steel resources, represented a 180-degree turnaround. Looking forward, Schuman saw two looming realities: the inevitability of German resurgence and the emergence of Russia as a greater threat than Germany. Modern Polish leaders would do well to consider the same points today. Coping with these realities will require more than just getting the right ratio of votes in the EU, coming to terms on a controversial museum, or issuing a joint communiqué at the next Weimar Triangle meeting.
2. Resolve the source of insecurity for the weaker power.
The 1952 “moment” succeeded because its architects understood that the real problem in Franco-German relations was not history, but rather the underlying geopolitical reality that had made that history possible: the permanent power disparity between Europe’s largest state and its mid-sized neighbors. Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman ingeniously addressed this deeper issue by giving the weaker state a rein on the stronger state’s power. Back then, the rein was coal and steel, without which Germany could not wage war. Today, it is natural gas. Much as French leaders once fretted about Germany’s greater supply of raw materials, modern-day Polish leaders worry about Germany’s privileged access to Russian gas. The template that Schuman used for addressing the problem in his time—a common program for producing and consuming coal and steel—might work today in the form of a common program for gas consumption. If Schuman were alive, he might suggest linking Germany’s controversial Nord Stream Baltic pipeline to a shared-authority gas storage and distribution network. In the same way that France accepted a German voice in Euro-Atlantic institutions in exchange for an insurance policy on war materials, Poland should be willing to accept a louder German voice in today’s EU in exchange for an insurance policy on energy.
3. Include the United States.
Franco-German rapprochement would never have left the ground without Washington providing the fuel. Just as Dean Acheson told France that it would not be taken seriously until it abandoned its punitive stance, US leaders should tell Warsaw that its influence in America increases in proportion to its engagement with Berlin. Ultimately, however, the real leadership must come from Germany. Washington should encourage Berlin to show the same degree of initiative in working toward rapprochement that it took in supporting Polish membership to NATO and the EU.
The problems in German-Polish relations are profound, deep-rooted and emotional. So were the problems in Franco-German relations. Finding a lasting solution required nothing less than a “diplomatic revolution”-–a sea change in how an earlier generation of European and American leaders thought about their problems and the types of instruments they were willing to use to solve them. The solution they found required giving something up in exchange for a bigger payoff down the road. Then, as now, this was a radical notion. But in 2007, as in 1952, it’s well worth the trouble.
Wess Mitchell is director of research at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a policy institute devoted to the study of Central Europe.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Wess Mitchell on Merkel’s Momentum: Grading the German EU Presidency
- Jackson Janes and Stephen Szabo Analyze Merkel’s Germany
- Radek Sikorski on Taking Poland for Granted