17 November 2015

Warsaw’s new assertiveness on refugees leads to reprimand from Martin Schulz

Following PiS’ victory in the Polish elections last month, I wrote that a more assertive Poland will cause headaches for Berlin, although I did not expect a major row to break out within 24 hours of the new government being officially sworn in. The trigger point, unsurprisingly, has been the refugee crisis and the comments from new Europe Minister Konrad Szymański that following the Paris attacks it was no longer politically possible for Poland to implement the EU’s relocation scheme – comments the government subsequently had to row back from.

Separately, Poland’s new Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski floated the idea of arming Syrian refugees and sending them back to liberate their country – an idea described as “muddled” and “rubbish” by a leader in Süddeutsche Zeitung today.

Meanwhile, in an interview on Sunday, European Parliament President Martin Schulz – never one to shy away from wading into controversial and sensitive topics – argued that:

When Poland feels threatened by Russia and demands weapons, soldiers and funds, then Europe shows its solidarity. Then in such a situation it is not possible to suddenly come along and say refugees are solely a German problem which has nothing to do with us.

Leaving aside his clumsy conflation of NATO (which Poland wants to see adopting a stronger presence in Central and Eastern Europe) and Europe, Schulz’s lecturing was never going to go down well in Warsaw.

Comments risk triggering wider deterioration of Polish-German relations

However in an interview this morning, Poland’s new Interior Minister Mariusz Błaszczak risked triggering a broader Polish-German row by not only hitting back at Schulz personally but at Germany more broadly, describing the comments as “yet another example of German arrogance” and invoking WWII by adding that “We are talking in Warsaw, Warsaw was destroyed by the Germans.” He also went on to suggest the anti-islamification PEGIDA protests in Dresden are more in tune with German public opinion than the policies of the German government.

This seems to be yet another reminder that Merkel’s decision to suspend the EU’s Dublin regulations with regard to Syrians has alienated many other national governments who feel that they are having to pick up the pieces. That said, the decision to go hard on Germany as a whole and to invoke WWII is reminiscent of the last PiS governments’ approach to diplomacy, an approach widely seen as ineffectual, and one which PiS had appeared to move away from in opposition. Under the previous Civic Platform government on the other hand Polish-German relations were strong, although PiS argued that was at the cost of Polish interests.

However, with the revision of the Minsk arrangements on the horizon, Schulz does a have a point in that regardless of the merits of its arguments on these two issues, Poland risks losing support for a tough stance on Russia if tries to extricate itself from the refugee relocation scheme (and also the way it expresses itself on this issue). The risk is that given the differences between Poland and Germany on these issues, this key bilateral relationship within the EU will continue to deteriorate.

This poses a challenge for Cameron who has gone out of his way to get Merkel on board for his EU reform agenda, but who also has close ties to the new government in Warsaw and counts on its support for some of his key renegotiation objectives.