WARSAW: Fighting to win an unprecedented third term in office, Poland’s nationalist government has seized on a target close to home – Germany, its Nato ally and biggest trading partner.
In a tight race ahead of Poland’s Oct 15 election, leaders of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party have accused Germany of trying to dictate Polish government policy from Berlin on anything from migration to gas.
The feud has frayed Europe’s broadly united front supporting Ukraine against Russia’s invasion, shredding a plan for a joint Polish-German tank repair plant for Kyiv’s benefit.
The populist PiS leadership also say Germany is plotting to install the party’s main electoral opponent, the liberal former prime minister Donald Tusk, back in power.
PiS has tapped into a mistrust towards Germany that still runs high in part of the electorate, above all elderly conservatives who remember the devastation of World War Two.
“Do you know where you can read the (opposition’s campaign) programme? In German newspapers,” Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki told a campaign event.
His party casts Tusk, who said his grandfather was forcibly conscripted into the Nazi Wehrmacht during World War Two before escaping to the Allied side, as a German puppet and the “political husband” of former German chancellor Angela Merkel. A campaign video also mocked Merkel’s successor Olaf Scholz.
Months of spats between the two neighbours have tested the solidarity of the Western alliance that rallied around Ukraine after the Russian invasion last year. They have come at a time when other issues, including the election of a pro-Russian leader in European Union member state Slovakia, are threatening disruption.
Impact on Ukraine
The quarrel has already impacted efforts to help Ukraine.
In April, the defence ministers of Germany and Poland, with a smile and hug of solidarity, announced the creation of a joint hub in Poland to repair German-made Leopard tanks damaged in battle in Ukraine.
But the deal quickly collapsed. In another dispute, Warsaw resisted a German offer to station Patriot missile air defence units in Poland before eventually agreeing to it.
“It’s very unhelpful that Poland, the people from the Law and Justice Party, continues to criticise Germany in such a harsh public way,” US General Ben Hodges, who commanded US Army forces in Europe in 2014-17, told Reuters.
“It’s unhelpful because it puts strain on the relationship between two Nato allies, which therefore puts strain on the overall cohesion of Nato.”
The tank plant would have been a joint effort by German manufacturers Krauss-Maffei Wegmann and Rheinmetall, neither of which responded to a request for comment, and the Polish defence conglomerate Polska Grupa Zbrojeniowa (PGZ).
Among the sticking points, according to a German source, was that Poland was asking for too much money for the repair works. Another source, a German diplomat, said the talks failed partly because German companies were reluctant to share technical information.
“But it also showed a little bit the same thing we had for the Patriots, a general mistrust on the part of the Poles and a sort of being in the habit of treating a partner in a way that is not usual for a partnership in the EU or in an alliance.”
As things stand, PGZ is repairing some Leopard tanks using spare parts supplied from Germany.
“To some extent, it depended on the speed of action and decisiveness of the German side. We were negotiating. Unfortunately, we have a slightly different view of what it should look like,” Sebastian Chwalek, PGZ’s chief executive officer, told Reuters.
Other tanks will be repaired elsewhere, “which is maybe a little bit more costly and maybe a little bit more time-consuming but it’s happening anyway,” the German diplomat said.
“It’s a sign of the present relationship that we cannot agree on such things.”
Polish government officials did not immediately respond to Reuters’ requests for comment.
A German foreign office spokesman said Berlin and Warsaw work closely together on European security and defence but declined to comment on “current domestic political debates in Poland”.
While ties between Poland and Germany have been frosty since PiS first came to power in 2015, Poles now see them worsening. Just 47% think relations are good, according to a German-Polish barometer poll this year, down from 72% in 2020.
Many Poles, including 56% of respondents in the opinion poll, feel Germany has not done enough to compensate for the damage inflicted by the war. PiS has called on Germany to pay over €1 trillion in reparations, which Berlin rejected.
A PiS source who requested anonymity described relations as “competitive”, saying Berlin and Warsaw “could work together on many issues” but were divisive on others, including reparations.
Two German lawmakers privately told Reuters that Berlin could have been more forthcoming in addressing Polish concerns and take conciliatory steps over the issue of reparations.
“I think we should be looking beyond the cartoonish (Polish policy) that this (election) campaign has put in front of us. It’s the moment for Germany to look into the mirror,” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff of the German Marshall Fund.
Scholz’s government has largely brushed off the attacks from PiS. A government source said Berlin was extra cautious not to even inadvertently provoke Warsaw.
“We’re treading on eggshells,” the source said.
To be sure, some analysts believe the Polish rhetoric towards Berlin could be dialled down after the elections.
But irritants on both sides are likely to persist, including over migration, which again mushroomed into a flashpoint over a cash-for-visas scandal in Poland last month.
“Now, to be honest, what I hope will happen is that my president will invite the two leaders kind of the way he did the leaders from Japan and South Korea, invited them to Camp David,” Hodges said.
“You know, maybe at some point President (Joe) Biden meets President (Andrzej) Duda and Chancellor Scholz and says, Fellows, we have got to fix it.”