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Poland: Tusk's visit to Berlin will be a tightrope walk

Donald Tusk will visit Berlin on Monday, for the first time since taking office last December

Donald Tusk will visit Berlin on Monday, for the first time since taking office last December

It's going to be a flying visit, but a very significant one nonetheless. Donald Tusk is traveling to Paris on Monday for a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron, and then flying to Berlin to meet German Chancellor Olaf Scholz the same day.

For Poland's new liberal prime minister, the visit to Berlin will be a real balancing act.

While Tusk is keen to repair his country's battered relationship with Germany, he must guard against getting too close to Poland's western neighbor.

The main opposition party in Poland, the national-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski, will be watching carefully. It has labeled Tusk a "German agent" and is certain to denounce even the slightest false move in Berlin as "treason."

Damage to Polish-German relations

Kaczynski's party, which ruled Poland for eight years from 2015 to 2023, left a trail of destruction behind it in European politics.

While in power, it chose to focus on the close military alliance with America, preferably with Donald Trump at the helm, and wrecked its relationships with France and Germany.

When PiS was voted out of office late last year, Polish-German relations were at their lowest ebb since the collapse of communism in the late 1980s.

In the run-up to the Polish parliamentary election last October, PiS declared that Germany was the biggest threat to Poland's sovereignty and that Tusk represented foreign, German interests.

After his party's electoral defeat, Kaczynski further ratcheted up his anti-German rhetoric, comparing Tusk's attempts to restore the rule of law with the methods of Adolf Hitler.

Relief in Berlin after Tusk's election win

When the new Polish center-left coalition government finally took power in mid-December, the delight in Berlin was plain for all to see.

Speaking in the German parliament, Chancellor Scholz spontaneously congratulated Tusk on his appointment and extended the hand of cooperation.

"Poland's role in and for Europe is bigger today than ever before," Scholz said in a government statement, expressing the hope that Germany and Poland would now move bilateral relations forward "side by side."

Scholz also said he hoped to welcome Tusk to Berlin "in the coming weeks."

Domestic Polish matters took priority at first

It took almost two months for Tusk to make his way to the German capital. His coalition's protracted and difficult road to government, which was delayed and impeded by PiS's all-out blocking tactics, meant that foreign policy initially had to take a back seat.

The dispute about the media and the government's first steps toward restoring the rule of law were deemed more important than foreign policy initiatives.

But there were other reasons, too. "Tusk is being extremely cautious when it comes to Germany so as not to give the right-wing populists any pretext for criticism," said Piotr Buras, political scientist and head of the Warsaw Office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Buras told DW that Tusk made no mention whatsoever of Germany in his first government statement. He also said that in his view, Tusk's chosen order for the visits — Paris first, then Berlin — was no coincidence.

PiS' anti-German rhetoric leaves it mark

"Eight years of anti-German propaganda have left a deep mark on Polish society. PiS dominates the debates about Germany," said Buras. For this reason, Tusk isn't expected to change tack — at least before the European elections in June. "He needs more time," said Buras.

"Tusk is a kind of hostage to PiS's rhetoric on Germany," confirmed Agnieszka Lada-Konefal, deputy director of the German Poland Institute.

She stressed, however, that the German government fully understands the Polish prime minister's predicament. "Berlin is not showing any disappointment, impatience or mistrust," Lada-Konefal told DW. The Germans, she said, know that they should avoid forcing anything on Warsaw and that they "should not behave like the big brother who keeps telling the little brother what to do."

Shift in Polish-German relations

Both Buras and Lada-Konefal agreed there would be no return to the Polish-German relations of the pre-PiS era.

After the collapse of communism in 1989, Krzysztof Skubiszewski, Poland's first non-communist foreign minister, began speaking of the "Polish-German Community of Interest," which he later called a "community of destiny."

Germany, the big brother, became Poland's advocate and smoothed the path of its little brother in the East into both the EU and NATO.

"We now find ourselves in an entirely different situation," said Lada-Konefal. Tusk's influence as an experienced politician — he was head of the European Council for five years — has grown enormously, she said.

According to Lada-Konefal, Poland's role in the world has also changed massively because of its swift and generous military aid for Ukraine and the fact that it has taken in millions of Ukrainian refugees.

At the same time, she said, Germany's wrong policy on Russia and its domestic difficulties have taken the gloss off its international reputation, adding that the balance of power has shifted toward Poland.

First steps toward normalizing relations

The process of normalizing relations has begun, and the first small steps have been taken.

The Polish government has announced that the PiS government's decision to block money for German lessons for children who are part of Poland's German minority will be reversed. It has also announced that a Polish-German schoolbook for use in history classes will soon be approved.

But there is still much to discuss on migration policy and EU reform, especially when it comes to majority decisions on foreign policy issues, which Berlin has pushed for.

Then there is the question of reparations for Polish victims of World War II, which hangs over Polish-German relations like the sword of Damocles.

It's unlikely that Polish-German "community of destiny" of the 1990s will be revived. Nevertheless, the new government in Warsaw is aware that faced with the crisis in the US, where Trump's Republican Party is blocking aid for Ukraine, and Russia's increasing aggressiveness, Poland's best option is a close alliance with Berlin and Paris.

This article was originally written in German.