A swamp of paranoid nostalgia
Grumpy diplomacy hurts Poland most of all
YOUR family is kidnapped by a cult that murders your best and brightest, steals your money and tries to brainwash your children. Eventually, it collapses and you are free—if a bit batty and scruffy after years of captivity. Your relatives have lived well in the meantime. You expect warmth, sympathy and generosity. But they sneer at your backward habits and treat you as an outsider. If you want to join the family (or rejoin, as you see it) you will have to fit in. And you had better be humble and grateful.
That, roughly, is the source of the misunderstanding between Poland and the old democracies of Europe. Lech and Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the twins who are the country’s president and prime minister, are outraged that the European Union is treating Poland as a new member of a club. Of course Poland won’t meet all the EU’s standards (and, the Kaczynskis note, many old members break them too). But does not western Europe owe it a huge moral debt? The twins almost brought a recent EU summit to a standstill by insisting that a new treaty give smaller countries greater voting rights, rather than have such rights determined directly by population size.
The treaty favoured by western European countries would have given Germany the most votes—a fact that sat poorly with another singular but deeply held belief in Poland: that Germany must still atone for the second world war. Germany’s notorious closeness to Vladimir Putin’s Russia under Gerhard Schröder, chancellor from 1998 to 2005, added insult to injury. First Germany murders millions of Poles. Then (telescoping history a bit) it tries to short-change Poland on EU voting rights. Even worse: when Poland tries to negotiate toughly (just as other EU members do) it is patronised and abused for being “prickly” and “obstinate”. That, Poland insists, verges on the racist.
It is hard not to sympathise with the Poles on some points. Western Europe has indeed been grudging, timid and hypocritical in its dealings with the former captive nations. The first reaction to the collapse of communism was to erect trade and visa barriers, not to welcome the kidnapped victims into the common European home.
But as with so many things, the Kaczynskis’ views are frozen in the past, and their logic is based on misunderstandings. To say “something very negative is happening in Germany”, as Jaroslaw Kaczynski did in a recent radio interview, is monstrous. It would have sounded mad and silly even when Mr Schröder was in charge. Angela Merkel, the present chancellor, is tremendous: the best-placed friend that east Europeans could wish for. It is most likely the only time that someone who grew up under communism will run one of the big Western democracies.
The troublesome twins
It is true that Germany’s politics are still too Russia-centred. But Mrs Merkel is struggling to unpick that, quite successfully. Poland could help her by offering friendship. The deal is blindingly obvious. Poland’s leaders could say, “we will support you inside the EU, to make it easier for you to support us against Russia”. Instead, the Kaczynskis prefer to wallow in a swamp of paranoid nostalgia, in which Germany and Russia are enemies of an equal hue.
Obviously, hard bargaining is sometimes necessary: even the best friends in the EU haggle like mad. But wise negotiators can talk nicely too. After the bruising EU summit in June, Poland could have been gracious in victory—they succeeded in delaying the new voting system’s implementation for a decade—but instead the Kaczynskis were grudging and ungrateful. Ireland’s diplomats are renowned for getting what they want. But their logic and persistence are laced with charm. They do not try to wrongfoot their British counterparts by suddenly raising historical atrocities. They stick to deals.
The Kaczynskis have won a battle. But they risk making Poland as Greece used to be: unpopular, expensive and, most dangerously, marginal. Perhaps only America can persuade the avowedly Atlanticist twins that a strong Poland in a strong EU is hugely preferable to a marginalised Poland in a weak one.