Financial Mirror (Cyprus)

Poland: Germany’s indispensa­ble partner

Berlin is likely to push for the release of EU funds to Warsaw in light of the war in Ukraine

- By Francesco Casarotto Francesco Casarotto is an analyst at Geopolitic­al Futures

More than a month into the war in Ukraine, the conflict is unsurprisi­ngly putting mounting pressure on Europe. Most obviously, pre-war supply chain issues have mixed with the economic fallout from the invasion to send energy prices skyward, and sanctions have forced European firms to find alternativ­e partners. The arrival of millions of Ukrainian refugees is also straining states’ asylum systems. Despite these enormous challenges, the most significan­t result of the war thus far is that it has revived NATO and reunited the European Union around Russophobi­a. Among the chief beneficiar­ies of this developmen­t is Germany. And to preserve the bloc’s newfound unity, Berlin is on the front line, willing to show greater flexibilit­y toward its EU partners.

One example involves the rule of law question. Namely, anonymous EU officials said recently that the bloc will likely hold off for now on applying the rule-of-law conditiona­lity mechanism, which links disburseme­nt of EU funds to member states’ respect for democratic principles as defined by Brussels. This marks an apparent shift in the bloc’s prewar stance, which seemed to be leaning toward withholdin­g funds from states like Poland and Hungary. (Separately, Brussels is already withholdin­g from Warsaw and Budapest funds from the EU’s pandemic recovery program over similar concerns.) Even before the war, Berlin was one of the louder voices calling for compromise, and now it points to the need to prioritize unity in the face of unpreceden­ted challenges. Germany is especially concerned with relations with Poland given that state’s significan­t role as a buffer between Germany and Russia. Ultimately, German pressure will likely lead the EU to drop the threats to suspend funds and to show greater flexibilit­y toward Poland and Hungary.

Background: Whose Rules and Whose Laws?

The European Union is the most ambitious experiment in economic union in modern history. Importantl­y, it also aspires toward a form of political union. Over time, its leaders gave themselves the goal of forming an “ever closer union” based on liberal democracy, the rule of law and a free market economy – the so-called Copenhagen criteria. Especially in light of challenges to democracy in recent years, Brussels sees itself as a champion of democracy and human rights.

The problem is that the 27 member states have different notions of liberal democracy and the rule of law, and tensions between EU authoritie­s and national leaders often arise over these disagreeme­nts that touch on core issues of national sovereignt­y. National leaders are reluctant to compromise or cede powers to a regional body they cannot control, especially since government­s get their mandate from their voters. Moreover, in the case of rule of law, national government­s have little incentive to bend to the EU’s will.

With the exception of potential fines – which the bloc often lacks the political will or legal framework to implement – Brussels has no significan­t, credible tools with which to sanction states that it believes violate rule-of-law standards.

However, in January 2021, the EU introduced the rule-oflaw conditiona­lity regulation, which enables the bloc to take steps including the suspension of EU payments to member states if rule-of-law violations jeopardize the utility and scope of the funds. Poland and Hungary strongly opposed the mechanism, which implicitly targeted their government­s; both are at loggerhead­s with Brussels – over judicial independen­ce and media freedom in Warsaw’s case, and over minority rights and corruption in Budapest’s case. In fact, the EU executive is already withholdin­g from the two states money from the bloc’s pandemic recovery fund.

Pragmatism Prevails

In the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, however, the European Commission is reportedly planning to unlock recovery funds for Poland and possibly Hungary, marking a transition away from previous rhetoric about safeguardi­ng the rule of law in the bloc. The driving force behind this change is obviously the Ukraine conflict and the subsequent need to avoid divisions between member states. Despite opposition from several lawmakers from the European Parliament, who contend that the EU has a moral duty to enforce respect for the rule of law, leniency is likely to prevail. Simply put, pragmatism above ideals.

At the center of this is Germany, the de facto leader of Europe. Before the war, economic and social pressures related to COVID-19 were tearing at the fabric of the EU. This was particular­ly problemati­c for Germany, which has a critical need to keep Europe, its most important trade market, from fragmentin­g. What’s more, prior to the war there were questions about Berlin’s fitness to lead, especially on economic policy. The war in Ukraine, then, is an opportunit­y for Germany to reinforce the bloc’s cohesion and regain some of its credibilit­y. As an added benefit, blame for Europe’s economic woes can be shifted to Russia and away from Brussels’ or Berlin’s management of the pandemic response.

Separately, the renewed threat of Russian revanchism has highlighte­d to Germany the need for a strong and friendly Poland to buffer it from Russia. Lying on the flat North European Plain, with no geographic­al barriers between it and Moscow, Berlin’s geographic­al vulnerabil­ities have always been a concern for its leaders. Before the war, Germany was the most reluctant European state to sanction Russia or to send weapons to Ukraine. This was mainly due to Germany’s dependence on Russian energy. Barely a week before the war began, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz said no European security framework should be made without or against Russia. Now, the German position on Russia has completely reversed. It has supported most of the sanctions against Russia and announced plans to drasticall­y increase its defense budget. Just as Berlin’s friendly attitude toward Moscow became a liability once the bombs started falling, so did its tough stance against Warsaw. Being tough on Poland risks strengthen­ing anti-EU forces in Poland, which to date still make up a minority of the population.

Finally, Poland is on the front lines of the refugee effort. Germany is well aware of the implicatio­ns of another refugee crisis on the EU’s cohesion, so even if other states are open to accepting refugees now, the more Poland can absorb the better. Warsaw recently said the expense of hosting the refugees would likely be around 24 billion euros ($27 billion), which is almost exactly what the country was due to receive in the form of grants from the bloc’s pandemic fund. Releasing the funds might help Poland better manage the situation and reduce Ukrainians’ incentives to continue moving west.

There may be other Western European holdouts, but Germany will work hard to convince the European Commission to release the funds to Poland. Maintainin­g a strong and allied Poland – and, to a lesser extent, Hungary – is a security imperative for Germany. Keeping the EU united is an economic imperative. Germany will act to preserve those two interests.

Almost everything Berlin has done since the start of the war points toward preserving the integrity of the European Union: sanctionin­g Russia, sending arms to Ukraine and even halting the certificat­ion process for the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline. In doing so, Germany is showing a renewed will to lead the bloc, even if it comes at costs it was previously unwilling to pay.

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