Achtung, Dear Berliners: A Polish Answer to the German Question

Radoslaw Sikorski speech at DGAP, Berlin

BERLIN—It is German Question Time once more in Europe. Only Germany, the continent’s most powerful economy, and still miraculously going strong, can lead the way to a recovery. That much is admitted from Lisbon to Tallinn, and even in Berlin.

The problem is that the Germans, less than two weeks before an historic EU summit weighs far-reaching treaty reforms to calm the markets and—perhaps—save the eurozone, are still debating the wrong questions. How much “leverage” is enough? Would “elite bonds” help? Might a “stability union” do the trick? This past Monday night, however, a Pole came to Berlin and spelled out the Question for the Germans. Or rather, he chiseled it in stone, in the starkest possible terms. In doing so, he demonstrated a remarkable grasp of his Western neighbor’s psychology.

Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski began his speech with an astute reference to the tired cliché that Europe has become boring because it is no longer about matters of war and peace. Wrong, he said — the Balkan Wars began in 1991 with the disintegration of the dinar, the Yugoslav currency. Those wars, lest anyone forget, lasted 14 years and claimed up to 130,000 lives. They caused Germany to offer shelter to 300,000 refugees, and to go to war for the first time in its post-World War II history. It was a reminder guaranteed to get his audience’s rapt attention, and keep it.

Sikorski bowed to his German friends, Chancellor Angela Merkel and Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, by supporting their calls for automatic sanctions, an elected European president, and more European integration. The Framers of the U.S. Constitution, he noted, had done something very similar when they decided to make their historic move from a confederation to a real federation.  (It’s not every day German leaders get compared to James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.) Even more shrewdly, the Minister reminded his listeners that a key element of the deal had been Alexander Hamilton’s brokering of a joint debt guarantee and revenue stream for the 13 founding states—an elegant way of pointing out that eurobonds, and a stronger European Central Bank (both still officially anathema to Berlin), are the logical conclusion to calls for a stronger EU.

Sikorski also thanked the Germans for their “solidarity” with Poland after 1989 — but not without adding that “I hope you appreciate it’s been a good investment.” In 2010, German exports exceeded 1990 levels ninefold. (Achtung, subliminal message: being nice is even nicer when it pays very nicely.) Was there a hint of acid in his subsequent remark that Germany’s trade with Poland is bigger than with the Russian federation, “although you would not always know it from German political discourse?” Perish the thought.

But by then it was time to dispense with diplomatic politesse. Sikorski had already pointed out that Germany has profited more than any other countries from exports to the ten new Eastern European members after 2004: its annual export volume rose from 15 to 95 billion euros in 2010. In the last third of his speech, he bluntly enumerated six reasons why Germany owes its fellow EU members solidarity:

  • Germany is the biggest beneficiary of the eurozone
  • Germany is not an innocent victim of others’ profligacy, having broken the Growth and Stability Pact and let its banks “recklessly” buy risky bonds
  • Germany has profited from lower borrowing costs
  • Germany stands to suffer most from a breakup of the eurozone
  • The danger of collapse is “much bigger” than the danger of inflation
  • Germany’s size and history give it a special responsibility to preserve peace and democracy on the continent (Here Sikorski quoted Jürgen Habermas, German secular intellectuals’ answer to the Pope: the last time a German revolution failed, in 1848, it took a hundred years to regain a similar level of democracy.)

At this point, the silence in the auditorium (packed with about 300 diplomats, policymakers, think-tankers, and other citizens—and including two former German presidents) was deafening. We were sitting only a stone’s throw from the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin’s graceful symbol of reunification—the Eastern side of the Gate, which only 20 years ago had been disfigured by the Wall, lethal coils of barbed wire, and goose-stepping Volkspolizisten. Recent history has been very generous to Germany; some may have thought: redemptive. Not a nice thought that things might go into reverse again.

To finish, Poland’s foreign minister reminded the Germans that their country is not an island: “The biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Poland” … is not terrorism, not the Taliban, not German tanks, nor Russian missiles… but “the collapse of the eurozone.”

“I demand of Germany that,” Sikorski continued, “for your sake and for ours, you help it survive and prosper. You know full well that nobody else can do it. I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say so, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear German inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation. You may not fail to lead.”

The applause at the end of Sikorski’s speech was genuinely warm, if permeated by a sense of shock. In Germany, home truths are usually muttered—rather than pronounced firmly and clearly, with attention paid to enunciation and phrasing.  Perhaps fittingly, it was former president Horst Köhler—himself born in Poland—who stood up and thanked Sikorski: “For you as Polish foreign minister to give this speech here today—I think it’s wonderful.”

Constanze Stelzenmüller is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin

Image by Dirk Enters, DGAP.