Central Europeans Can’t Count on France Alone

Now is the time for Poland to repair relations with Berlin.

François Hollande David Cameron
British prime minister David Cameron and French president François Hollande pay their respects at the First World War memorial in Pozières, March 3 (10 Downing Street/Georgina Coupe)

It’s an old Eastern Europe strategy: boxed in between Germany and Russia, you ally with Western nations, like France, to safeguard your independence.

It doesn’t always work. France restored Polish independence in 1807 and went to war, together with the United Kingdom, when the Germans and Russians invaded the Baltic states and Poland in 1939. But the West couldn’t kick Joseph Stalin out of Central and Eastern Europe after the war; the “betrayal” of Yalta that was only rectified 45 years later when the Iron Curtail came down.

The countries in the region then wisely reached out to United States, which is still the ultimate guarantor of their security. The Americans, after all, have no immediate stake in what the European balance of power looks like, as long as there is a balance.

Unlike the French. They have their own history of accommodation with Russia, in order to balance against German power.

It’s a history that may not be very relevant anymore, but it does help explain why France doesn’t see Russia the same way its neighbors do.

If Britain’s exit from the European Union shifts power to France, Europe’s only other major military and nuclear power, that’s not a happy prospect for Eastern Europe.

“Paris is a bigger problem than Berlin”

On the eve of the NATO summit in Warsaw last week, President François Hollande argued that Russia should be treated as a “partner”, not an adversary.

Although one NATO official told the Financial Times he was “like a completely different person” behind closed doors — perhaps his calls for partnerships were only meant for a domestic audience that is sanguine about Russian intentions — a defense minister from one of the eastern member states told the same newspaper the French had been “the most objectionable” in the process of reinforcing the alliance’s frontier.

“Right up to the summit they were trying to dilute all aspects of it,” the minister said, from reducing the number of Western troops that would be stationed in the allied countries facing Russia to suggesting Poland had no need for air missile defenses.

“Paris is a bigger problem for us than Berlin,” according to the minister, who didn’t want to be named.

Unlike the Germans, they are not really interested in promoting a close transatlantic partnership or building up relations with Eastern European countries.

Tell that to the Poles.

Time to move on

As I argued after Britain voted to leave the EU, now is the time for Poland to repair its relations with Berlin.

The two have a similar vision for the EU: one that is less political and more economic union. They are both pro-American and, in the case of Germany’s Christian Democrats, instinctively Atlanticist. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, would more than welcome a Polish counterweight to the protectionist and Russophile south.

But the current right-wing government in Warsaw isn’t doing her any favors, because it can’t get over what the Germans did 75 years ago.

This obsession with the Second World War isn’t hurting only Poland; it is keeping the whole region back.

If Poland keeps its western neighbor at arm’s length and relies entirely on the faraway Atlantic states, it risks turning Central European fears of a German-Russian accord into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Germany needs Mitteleuropa to ground it on the right side of the East-West divide just as much as Mitteleuropa needs Germany in order to succeed.

If it doesn’t, the region’s next call is Paris. And we know they might not get the most sympathetic hearing there.

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