East-West Divide in Europe?

A discussion between the French journalist Sylvie Kauffmann (Le Monde), the Polish researcher Marek Cichocki and Michael Link, Member of the German Parliament

Körber-Stiftung: According to the German-Polish barometer, the majority of both Germans and Poles want more European integration. Is there no East-West divide in Europe, after all?

Link: I do not think the divisions depend on geography, but on differences in values and political views. This makes me hopeful, because it implies we can influence political debates and processes. That is also why it is so important which political family wins the European elections next year.

Kauffmann: I agree. We have grown accustomed to this schematic dividing line of “populists in Central Europe and liberal democracy in the West”, but today, populist and nationalist movements exist across the EU.

Körber-Stiftung: Mr Cichocki, most Germans think Poland contributes to an increase in tensions in Europe and is not a reliable partner.

Cichocki: Germans have had a critical attitude towards Poland for many years. Poles do not always agree with German policies, but they tend to view German society positively. However, I also think it is outdated to focus on an East-West divide. The main challenge for Europe are rising inequalities between regions and within societies. The biggest hope related to European integration was that it would reduce inequalities. Today, it rather seems as if socio-economic conditions or political views are growing further apart.

Körber-Stiftung: Ms Kauffmann, why do these different perceptions surface now?

Kauffmann: The big enlargement of 2004 is now 15 years old, so we are witnessing a crisis in the expansion of the EU. The migrant crisis has revealed that we underestimated the dimensions of enlargement. For instance, with regard to the relationship to the concept of the nation, the founding members wanted the EU to move beyond the nation-state due to our war-ridden history. Central European member states on the contrary aspired to reconnect with their national identity after 1989. How should we deal with this?

Körber-Stiftung: Mr Link, will the Commission’s proposal to make EU funds conditional on the respect for the rule of law strengthen the adherence to fundamental values, or will it deepen divisions?

Link: We should never question that Poland and other countries are entitled to these funds. On the other hand, we need to insist on the respect for fundamental European values. Maybe the actual disbursement of these funds could be withheld as long as there are pending fundamental rights cases with the European Commission. This would of course have to apply to every member instead of singling out individual governments.

Körber-Stiftung: Mr Cichocki, is Germany a moraliser?

Cichocki: I do not want to generalise, but there is a certain tendency.

Link: Maybe one of the biggest mistakes of Ms Merkel is that unlike Helmut Kohl and Hans-Dietrich Genscher, she has never really managed to put herself in the shoes of our neighbours. Having said that, I expect our neighbours to also put themselves in our shoes. Statements by the current Polish government about reparations towards Germany are simply not helpful. We need to respect the standpoint of others and be ready for compromise.

Cichocki: I understand the arguments against reparations. However, a majority of Polish people believes neighbouring countries do not sufficiently acknowledge what their country experienced especially in the Second World War. We cannot ignore this. I agree entirely with what Mr Link said on European integration. Still, I think we should organise EU decision-making within its traditional institutional framework again. Recently, informal crisis management has been predominant. Especially for member states in this region, it is worrisome if two political leaders meet somewhere and pre-determine what the right direction is on issues that affect vital national interests before all member states meet to discuss.

Körber-Stiftung: Ms Kauffmann, does the Franco-German tandem contribute to fragmentation?

Kauffmann: The Franco-German tandem is part of the solution, but we definitely lost momentum due to those endless coalition talks after the German election [looks at Michael Link and laughs]. If we want to develop a common defence and security policy, France and Germany have to find a common strategic vision. However, there is resistance from other members. Europe is atomised when we should be more united than ever.

Körber-Stiftung: Should France try harder to strengthen ties with countries like Poland?

Kauffmann: Of course! But what is Poland’s outlook on foreign policy? For understandable reasons, Poland always had very close relations with the US. However, US President Trump is fundamentally changing the equation. This also affects Poland’s relations with its European partners: can we find a common position towards the US?

Link: We are sitting here in the Weimar format. This is a format of equals, and it is crucial for the EU. There are obvious differences between the three governments, but we need each other. Otherwise, extreme right wing parties like the AfD or Le Pen’s Rassemblement National will continue to grow.

Körber-Stiftung: Mr Cichocki, do you see potential in the Weimar Triangle?

Cichocki: The potential depends on whether the three countries are ready to talk with each other as equals, as Michael Link said. In principle, it is a good idea to bring these countries together. However, while it was always clear that Germany and Poland wanted each other to be partners, France has always had a different approach to enlargement and to Central Europe. Therefore, the future of the triangle depends on the future of Polish-French relations. It also depends on whether the other countries acknowledge that Poland is not only a recipient of benefits from European integration, but also contributes to it, for example in terms of security at the Eastern border. This is often rejected because of our attitude to migration policy. We will not always do what others expect, but solidarity should imply that they recognize the contribution nonetheless.

Kauffmann: It is important to show that the Weimar Triangle can work as one of many formats within the EU. Working in smaller groups should not raise suspicion or the feeling of exclusion. If we try to do everything among the 27, it will be a showcase for paralysis.

Link: Maybe we Germans and French also need to understand the concerns of non-Eurozone countries. On the other hand, Poland needs to accept that a multi-speed Europe already exists. We need a more united Europe, otherwise we will be even more vulnerable and exposed to increasingly authoritarian powers like China, Russia and others – especially during the tenure of an increasingly unpredictable US President.

The interview was conducted during the Bergedorf Round Table in June 2018 in Warsaw.