Change of Style or Substance? Polish-German Differences Remain as Tusk Visits Berlin

Poland's new prime minister, Donald Tusk, is in Berlin Tuesday for his first official visit to Germany. Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Tusk already enjoy a close working relationship, tough issues remain on the agenda. Expect hard bargaining.

By David Gordon Smith in Berlin


Poland's new prime minister, Donald Tusk, is regarded as more pro-Europe than his predecessor. But how will he get on with Germany's Merkel?
AFP

Poland's new prime minister, Donald Tusk, is regarded as more pro-Europe than his predecessor. But how will he get on with Germany's Merkel?

When Donald Tusk and his center-right Civic Platform party won Polish elections in October, there was a collective sigh of relief across Europe. The new prime minister's liberal, pro-business leanings were regarded as a welcome change from the nationalistic, anti-European tone of his predecessor, Jaroslaw Kaczynski.

Germany has been waiting to see how relations with its eastern neighbor, which had been decidedly frosty under Kaczynski's term, would develop with Tusk in charge. The first signs of whether a thaw is in the air will be seen Tuesday, when Tusk meets German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on his first official visit to Germany.

There will be several tricky points on the agenda, among them plans for a center in Berlin commemorating Germans expelled from parts of present-day Poland and the Czech Republic after World War II, and a planned Baltic Sea gas pipeline running from Russia to Germany.

One thing is certain, though: the tone in relations between Poland and Germany can only be warmer under the new prime minister. "There will certainly be a change in style," says Julian Pänke, an expert on Eastern Europe at the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP). "There are signals on the Polish side that the Poles want to improve relations. We can expect to see a less confrontational style and more willingness for compromise -- on both sides."

However it won't all be plain sailing. "Problems remain and there are difficult issues on the agenda, like the Center Against Expulsions," Pänke says. "We can expect hard bargaining on these issues."

When it comes to his policy on Germany, Tusk will have to tread a fine line if he wants to keep his domestic audience happy. "On the one hand, polls showed that the majority of Poles thought that Jaroslaw Kaczynski's position on Germany was too hard-line," says Pänke. "So there is general support for some kind of reconciliation with Germany, and certainly the western Polish provinces, which have close economic ties with Germany, want relations to improve. On the other hand, Tusk has to be careful not to be seen as a pushover."

This balancing act can be seen in Tusk's suggestion, made in the run-up to Tuesday's meeting, that a World War II museum be built in the Polish city of Gdansk as an alternative to the planned Berlin expulsions center. The proposal shows a willingness to compromise -- to an extent.

But although the idea will be welcomed by many in the German political landscape who would like to see any explusions center embedded in a wider context, it is unlikely that an agreement will be reached on the issue. "Merkel has to keep an eye on her votes from the expellees' lobby," Pänke says. "And Tusk has already said he won't work with the head of the expellees' association, Erika Steinback. So it's going to be hard to reach an settlement."

Another sticking point will be restitution claims. A small group of Germans want restitution for property in present-day Poland that they lost after the war. On this issue, Tusk is sticking with Jaroslaw Kaczynski's position, insisting that the German government settle the issue. "The German government must take responsibility for any financial consequences resulting from the restitution claims," Tusk said in an interview with the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. And, like his predecessor, Tusk rejects attempts by Germans to portray themselves as victims of World War II.

Progress on the Baltic Sea pipeline could be easier, however. Tusk has said that a previously neglected proposal Merkel made to the Kaczynski government, namely that the pipeline could have a diversion to Gdansk, is back on the agenda. The diversion would lessen Polish fears that they would be bypassed by the pipeline and left at Russia's mercy should it decide to play hardball on energy issues -- as it has done with Ukraine and Belarus. "Both the German and Polish sides are interested in the diversion option," says Pänke. "Kaczynski was simply being stubborn on this issue more than anything."

And Merkel already gets on better with Tusk than she did with Jaroslaw Kaczynski. The two politicians have already met several times as part of cooperation between Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union and Tusk's Civic Platform. "She was one of the first to call to congratulate him on his election victory," says Pänke. "They already have a very close relationship -- I believe they are on first-name terms -- and we can expect a good working atmosphere."

But things are unlikely to move fast. Although they didn't win the election, the Kaczynskis' Law and Justice party is still strong, and Lech Kaczynski is still president, with responsibility for some foreign policy issues. "Tusk has to be careful," Pänke says. "Merkel would be wise not to expect too much progress at the beginning."

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