Klaus Bachmann: Only a Strong EU May Save Itself

Whoever wants more powers for nation-states and weaker EU institutions, he will get a European Union where instead of the European Commission it will be Germany dictating to the EU what it should do—says the German political scientist Klaus Bachmann in an interview with the Łukasz Grzesiczak.

“Czech–German relations may be an example for the entire world,” said the Czech Prime Minister Bohuslav Sobotka on the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Czech–German declaration by Václav Klaus and Helmut Kohl (February 21, 1997, Prague). Is your opinion the same?

I am very cautious in making such categorical judgements and I do not believe that such examples can be transferred to other regions of the world. And yet I know that among the diplomats and scientists from South Korea, China, and Japan there is a significant interest in what they call German–French, German–Czech, and Polish–German reconciliation.

Still as a foreign minister, just before assuming the office of the German president, Frank–Walter Steinmeier met with his Czech counterpart Lubomír Zaorálek. Was that more than just a courtesy?

I did not notice that Germans started to treat the Czechs, rather than the Poles, as the leaders of the region. The economic and geopolitical importance of Czechia and Poland is very different and if only for that reason the relations with Poland will be more important for Germany than its relations with Czechia. But I can imagine that for Steinmeier, Zaorálek was simply a nicer guy than Witold Waszczykowski, his unpredictable colleague from Poland.

Is the Visegrad Group an important partner for German foreign policy?

I don’t think so. V4 is not a homogenous partner and in many matters has no coherent position. Virtually the only issue it is unanimous on is the question of refugees. But in Czechia and Slovakia there is a difference of opinion on that between the president and the government.
I think that from the point of view of the Visegrad Group it is a remarkable progress that it is perceived as a group at all, recently by Angela Merkel.

So what are the most important challenges you see in the relations between Germany and the Visegrad Group countries? Can the V4 be a partner of Germany in the EU?

Yes, but to the same extent as any other regional group and any other EU country. Additionally, one has to be aware that the V4 is relatively weak, both economically and demographically, compared to other groups such as the South (Portugal, Spain, Italy, Greece), the Iberian countries, the countries of the North (Sweden, Denmark, Finland, and in the Schengen context also Norway), or even the Benelux countries.
We will notice that when comparing votes which representatives of all these groups have in the EU Council and the European Parliament. Even in those places where the V4 has more votes—compared to the Nordic countries and the Benelux for example—it is definitely weaker economically.

What kind of EU does Germany want?

They want a European Union of 28 or (after Brexit) 27 states which are increasingly integrating with the participation of strong supranational institutions, such as the European Commission, the European Parliament, and the European Court of Justice. If it is not possible, for example because Great Britain leaves the Union, the EU should remain as numerous as possible. It could be called the Merkel doctrine: “Nobody is left behind.” It regarded Portugal, Ireland, or Greece during the eurozone crisis, Greece during the migration crisis, and now Poland or Hungary because of their problems with the rule of law. Germany itself, German pressure groups, and German government sometimes complain that institutions “mingle in other people’s affairs.” It was so, for example, when the Commission asked the German minister of traffic to change his concept of motorway charges in such a way that it would not discriminate against foreigners
(which undermines the sense of this project or makes it unprofitable). The minister changed the bill and this delayed the work on it to such an extent that it did not become the law during his term in office. There was no attempt to introduce the bill against the position of the Commission. This is a consensus which stretches over the whole German party system-respecting supranational institutions, even when it is against the German interests.

For Germany this is a condition for EU’s functioning?

Without that everyone would “take a free ride.” Initially, they would agree to far-reaching common efforts, in order to look good before their own public, and then, when the political, social, and financial cost of implementing such decisions would have to be borne, they would pretend that these measures are impossible to introduce. This is done with domestic pressure groups in mind, for which implementation of such decisions means bearing particular costs. It can be seen now during the discussion about raising the military expenditure within NATO. NATO has no supranational institutions which could persuade the member states to respect jointly-taken decisions (to spend 2% of the GDP on defense). The member states at first agreed to these 2%, and then did not implement it, hoping that others would do it for them. This is the free-riding I spoke about. Currently, the Americans are trying to exploit their hegemonic position within NATO to persuade others to respect these decisions. It is a very good illustration of what would happen in the EU if supranational institutions were too weak.

Germany would become the United States of Europe?

It would mean that Germany would behave in the EU like Americans within NATO. In other words, whoever wants more powers for nation-states and weaker EU institutions—as the governments of Hungary and Poland demand—he will get a European Union where instead of the European Commission it will be Germany dictating to the EU what it should do. And then the EU will break up, for it probably will be beyond the power of Germany to play such a role. And therefore virtually all political forces in Germany support strengthening rather than weakening supranational institutions.

How do you assess the relations between Berlin and Bratislava and Budapest?

I do not think that our relations with Slovakia particularly stand out from our relations with other countries. Budapest is a more interesting case. We had two politicians in the EU who attempted to create themselves as leaders of opposing tendencies in Europe. Alexis Tsipras aspired to the position of the savior of the European radical left, but was unsuccessful because the left to the left of social democracy is very weak and has made its presence felt only in few countries, mainly in Spain and Greece. The other politician who has challenged the mainstream policy in the EU is Viktor Orbán, but he does it from the right angle. When it comes to controlling the extreme right and the right-wing/populist movements in the EU, Orbán does not have much chance, for his country is too weak and there are too many other candidates for the position of the savior of the right. On top of it all, Vladimir Putin is very active in this company. Moreover, Orbán himself is unable to decide if he should attack Merkel and Germany, and without that it is difficult to build an image of a politician who challenges the European liberal mainstream.

In early February, Chancellor Merkel met in Warsaw with Jarosław Kaczyński and representatives of an opposition party. How does Berlin
assess the current situation in Poland?

In contrast to the Polish participants of these talks (who immediately rushed to the media and blabbed about what they had been talking about with Merkel), the chancellor herself never spoke about it. From what I know, the behavior of the Polish side did not make the best impression on her. It regarded both the talks with representatives of the governing camp and with the opposition. What to make of MEPs who propose to abolish the position of the president of the European Union Council in order to strike at the candidacy of Donald Tusk in a situation where it would require changing European treaties, which would take a few years? What to make of representatives of the opposition who have their five minutes to present the threats to democracy and the rule of law in Poland, who may contradict the government’s narrative on this subject, and instead they prefer to talk about sugar beet?

Warsaw loses credibility in the German eyes? What can be the consequences of this?

The current Polish government is repeatedly making far-reaching demands—probably meant to impress the Polish public—whose implementation would be harmful not only for Poland but even for the government itself. One example is the reform of treaties. If it came to that, then given the balance of power in the EU the result would be exactly the opposite to what the Polish government wants. After Great Britain leaving the EU, only Poland, Hungary, and maybe Denmark would demand the renationalization of EU powers. But even if by some miracle it came to that, it would result in the breakup of the EU, the emergence of a hard core centered around Germany and isolated from the rest, and a scenario which I described before. The current Polish government repeatedly announces proposals which would make sense only if they were not implemented. The idea is to chase the bunny, not to catch it. This is not a policy which would be credible for others. The consequences are that other countries more and more rarely seek the support of Warsaw or consult things with it and there is a growing number of groups, informal bodies, and meetings in which Poland does not take part. One day we will wake up and Poland will still be in the EU, but in fact it will be in the same situation as Great Britain, not an EU member.

What does an average German think about Poles and other inhabitants of Central Europe?

Not much. A positive image of Poland lingers on, for stereotypes—both positive and negative ones—are astonishingly permanent and resistant to current events. Slightly harmful to the Polish image was this explosion of xenophobia towards the Muslims during the migration crisis. Until that time, very many people who are interested in Poland accepted the stereotype of Polish tolerance and hospitality. Until late 1990s, Poland was regarded in Germany almost as an exemplary success story, a country which very efficiently—and with lower financial and social cost than the former East Germany—managed to build democracy and market economy. And suddenly, out of nowhere, emerged a government which claims that Poland is a country in ruin, corrupt, torn with inequalities, and steeped in mafia-type arrangements. The governing camp in Poland uses a language which, when translated into German, very strongly smacks of the language used by the Nazi movement in the 1930s. A nation which under the leader of one party is at last awakening from lethargy, rising from its knees, immigrants spreading diseases, etc. In German it sounds like taken straight out of Freikorps and SA leaflets. I know that it is not like that, for I live here, but to a German listener who is interested in Poland the effect is overwhelming.

Angela Merkel will be running for the office of the chancellor for the fourth time in the autumn parliamentary elections. What are her chances of victory?

It is difficult to predict. A few percent of the votes may decide about which party will form the government. A paradoxical situation is possible where Merkel wins the elections, but does not become chancellor, for SPD will form a coalition with the left (Die Linke) and the Greens. Currently the SPD is rapidly regaining the electorate it lost in recent years. Two scenarios are the most probable: another grand coalition
or a left-wing government under the leadership of the SPD.

Will foreign policy be an important issue of this elections? If yes, which matters will be the most significant?

Trump’s policy and Putin’s policy influence the course of the election campaign, but foreign policy rarely determines the choices of German voters. Social questions are the most important here: economic inequalities, which in Germany are bigger than in Poland, and social mobility. There are also many areas where foreign policy becomes domestic policy. Turkey tries to use the population of Turkish origin to influence
the politics in Turkey and, using authoritarian methods, persuades them to vote “yes” in the Turkish referendum on introducing the residential system. The government in Istanbul also tries to make an impact on politics in Germany. A similar phenomenon can be observed among
the Russian-speaking population, part of which succumbs to Russian propaganda and spreads it against Merkel. The aim is to have a left-wing government, one that would be more willing to abolish sanctions against Russia and to have a “reset” in foreign policy—especially in the context of Ukraine. I think that such a government would be less involved in financial and economic support for Ukraine.

To what extent the possible left-wing government in Germany would adjust its policy towards Poland?

A left-wing government would probably put an even stronger pressure for deeper integration while it is doubtful it would continue the “nobody is left behind” doctrine. Certainly such a government would be less willing to pay for the maintenance of a great EU and stopping centrifugal
movements, especially in the countries ruled by the right. For this reason another grand coalition of CDU and SPD would probably be the best for Poland.

Klaus Bachmann

Klaus Bachmann worked as a foreign correspondent from 1988 to 2001, writing from Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, and Belarus and getting published in various periodicals in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. He became a docent at the University of Wrocław in 2004 and then in 2006 at the University for Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw. His career in the academia spans teaching and research positions
at universities in Bordeaux, Vienna, Stellenbosch (South Africa), Beijing (Renmin University of China), and Washington, D.C., (American Center for Contemporary German Studies at Johns Hopkins). His current work lies in several scientific projects in the territory of former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Tanzania, Namibia, and South Africa on the topic of colonialism, international criminal tribunals, and games theory. He is an author of books and writings on German, Austrian, and Polish culture, history, and politics, on European Union as well as on the German–Polish and Polish–Ukrainian relations.

Łukasz Grzesiczak

Łukasz Grzesiczak is a Polish journalist and writer publishing his texts in Czech and Polish journals.

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