Less symbols, more future in the Eastern policy

In the policy towards the East, there is a need to strengthen Polish-German cooperation, to develop a strategic approach to Eastern Europe and the Black Sea region, as well as to find a European counterweight to the Russian Federation.


Debata wschodnia 1

On May 13th 2020, the Jan Nowak Jeziorański College of Eastern Europe and the Deutsch-Russischer Austausch e.V. (DRA) co-hosted an online discussion in the series of four events: “Ost/Wschód. Polish-German views on the East” on foreign policies of Germany and Poland in Eastern Europe. Speakers of the debate were Wilfried Jilge, a historian and an associate fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and Agnieszka Bryc, an assistant professor at Nicolaus Copernicus University in Toruń. How do Germany and Poland see each other, can they cooperate more, are there any similarities in their eastern policy?” as moderator Adam Reichardt, editor of New Eastern Europe opened the debates.

Debata Ost_Wschód

Wilfried Jilge talked about historical experience and responsibility that has influenced the German view on Eastern Europe and its consistent support for a rule-based order. “Germany is viewing itself as a central power (Zentralmacht) which means that it tries to uphold good relations with both East and West. Its strength is in having good relations with different member states within the EU and different regions throughout Europe”. According to Jilge, Germany has still to cope with the challenge resulting from its position as a central power: to take more responsibility to keep the different orientations within the EU together on the one hand; and to precede (together with other European partners, e.g. like France and Poland) when it comes to strengthening and consolidating the European part in the Euro-Atlantic Alliance in light of growing uncertainty in its direct neighbourhoods.

This ambivalence, Jilge added, of a Germany searching for its role in foreign policy is also mirrored in its relations with Russia: “On the one hand, Germany is very strong in upholding the sanctions against Russia. On the other hand, Germany is pursuing the path to have a special role in energy policy for which its good relations with Russia are essential”. Nord Stream 2, he said, is an example “when Germany sometimes does not see solidarity as its priority, opting for national economic interests”.  

Today’s German-Russian relations are largely shaped by Russia’s military aggression in eastern Ukraine and the occupation of Crimea. “Since the beginning of the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, German relations with Russia have changed. There has been a growing mistrust that you can observe on diplomatic and governmental levels. At the same time, there are interests in the energy sector and in a return to a “business as usual” with Russia in economic relations represented by certain groups which try to influence Germany’s policy towards Russia: e.g. certain leaders of federal countries (e.g. in eastern Germany) and parts of the German business community engaged in Russia”, summarized Jilge.

Agnieszka Bryc described Polish foreign policy as “nationalized” and “captured by domestic issues”. “Poland is focused mainly on history, on wars, clashes, on the collective memory of the past. We are not thinking about the future or even the current situation. We are talking about symbols rather than about realpolitik”, Bryc said.

While Poland does not have a clear vision of its policy towards Kyiv, its relations with Russia are frozen and virtually non-existent. “[…] Especially since 2015 when Polish politics were overtaken by right-wing party Law and Justice […] After the presidential airplane crash in Smolensk, Russia became a symbol of the Polish tragedy. Law and Justice instrumentalised this symbol to win electoral support. Meanwhile, Russia has become much more conservative and assertive towards the West. And Poland became a very easy target to be used to showcase how the West is anti-Russian and Russophobic”.

Both experts have emphasized the need for strengthening cooperation, more strategic approaches in Eastern Europe and the Black See region, and joint EU leverage on the Russian Federation. They warned against COVID-19 overshadowing strategic geopolitical needs.

The full debate is available to watch online via New Eastern Europe’s YouTube channel. 

The debates are organized within the framework of the project “Ost/Wschód: German-Polish Debates on the East”. The project is co-sponsored by the Heinrich Böll Foundation’s Warsaw Office as well as the Foundation for Polish-German Cooperation.