“Every dictator is an enemy of freedom, an opponent of law.” The words of Demosthenes, which no doubt the Polish prime minister, Beata Szydło, had in mind as she delivered her latest broadside against the European Union, with dictatorship and law very much on her mind. She said that Poland insists on compliance with EU treaties and does not accept being dictated to by the larger EU member states. Both German Chancellor Merkel and French President Macron have recently criticised the Polish government both as regards the rule of law and what they see as Poland’s failure to cooperate over migrants.
In an interview with weekly magazine Sieci, the prime minister spoke about the pressure in Poland from the EU to accept migrants under the EU to resettle those currently in Italy and Greece. “”We cannot be blackmailed that we will lose part of our EU funds as punishment because we do not accept the compulsory relocation of immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East,” she said. “EU funds, cohesion policy are as much a pillar of the European Union as the freedom of movement of goods and services – we are simply entitled to them,” the prime minister continued. Thus “Poland is insisting on compliance with EU treaties and we do not accept being dictated to by the largest states,” she said.
Poland has strong arguments in its favour, according to Szydło. “We want to be in the EU, we value it and that is why we have the right to press for respecting the rules, for a truly common market, for security, for development,” she said. The prime minister also said that claims that the government wished to take Poland out of the EU are “the lie of all lies, a terrible manipulation”.
And she may well have a point. Leaving aside the wishes of the migrants themselves, many of whom would doubtless prefer to be in Germany or elsewhere, if past experience of re-settlement is anything to go by, it is not clear that the current treaties would legally allow cohesion funds to be withheld in this way. It may well be a desirable policy, and it is understandable that those member states that have done their bit feel somewhat aggrieved by the attitude of the Polish government, but the law is the law. After all, is it not the EU that is so critical of Poland for deviating, as it sees it, from the rule of law? Of course, being somewhat inclined to miss the wood for the trees (those it hasn’t cut down at least), the government’s riposte was not phrased in those terms.
Meanwhile, Poland’s foreign minister does seem keen to engage with Germany, suggesting on Monday that both countries “should sit down for serious talks” in order together to find a way “to deal with the fact that German-Polish relations are overshadowed by the German aggression of 1939 and unresolved post-war issues.” Speaking on radio RMF FM, Witold Waszczykowski said the issue had been left neglected for 70 odd years.
While the issue of reparations “is beyond dispute morally,” Waszczykowski said, “in legal terms, the matter is ambiguous for various reasons, because there was no conclusion in terms of a peace conference with Germany or a peace treaty, but also because of the meanders of our history.” Waszczykowski also said that the government in Warsaw was still “preparing” its official position on reparations. He did not say when a final decision could be expected, but suggested the material losses alone were close to USD 1 trillion.
Waszczykowski has previously said that opposition in Poland to raising the issue of reparations for World War II is a barrier to potential negotiations with Germany. In fact, in a resolution adopted in 1953, Poland’s then communist government recognised that Germany had fulfilled its obligations regarding Poland and decided not seek compensation payments. The government’s view appears to be that decisions made by the communist-era authorities are not necessarily still valid because they were made under pressure from the then Soviet Union.
To many it might come as surprise to be told – indeed, it seems only to have become an issue in the eyes of the current government – that Polish-German relations are so overshadowed, especially given Poland’s entry to EU membership, into which Germany is the largest payer. Apart from the great benefit Poland has derived being the largest recipient of EU funds, the considerable German investment in Poland has had a significant impact. Therefore, this talk of reparations is at best a distraction for domestic consumption, at worst rather clumsy diplomacy. But since Poland will not, as she sees it, be dictated to, we may expect more of the same.