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“The roots of the friendship between Germany and Poland are incredibly strong”

Interview by Foreign Minister Gabriel with the Polish newspaper “Gazeta Wyborcza”, published to coincide with his visit to Warsaw on 8 March 2017

So far, all German Foreign Ministers visited Poland very shortly after taking office. You visited Tallinn before Warsaw. Why? Is Poland no longer important for Germany?

That is certainly not the case. One reason why I recently visited all three Baltic states was because the larger EU Member States, particularly Poland and Germany, need to show the smaller members that they are important. Apart from that, it is important to come to Warsaw before I visit Russia. By the way, I have lost count of how many times I have been in Poland. I first started visiting your country during the 1980s, when Poland was still under martial law. We wanted to have contact with Solidarność and we regularly met people in the Catholic Intellectuals Club in Warsaw. And I visited Poland several times last year in my capacity as German Minister for Economic Affairs. Poland is not only a close neighbour for me, but also one of the most important partners in Europe. But more importantly, the roots of the friendship between Germany and Poland are incredibly strong. And these roots unite us and give us a firm foundation, no matter how turbulent the situation might be above ground. 

German-Polish relations have never been as good and close as they are today. I am proud of what we have achieved and put in place since the fall of the Berlin Wall. The year marking the 25th anniversary of our Treaty on Good Neighbourliness was an excellent example, with over 200 political meetings and thousands of events organised by members of the public from our two countries. That moved me deeply. And it also convinced me that people in Poland and Germany do not need political symbols to proclaim the value of their relations.

We are working hand in hand to become even closer. The aim of my first visit to Warsaw as Foreign Minister is to tap into this trust while I am here. This is also important as regards cohesion in the European Union. We now need to pool all our resources in order to be in a strong position during the next ten years. Europe needs all its strength for the recalibration of the world that we are currently experiencing.

The Polish Government has undermined the Constitutional Tribunal and taken over state media. It is planning to amend local electoral law and it is attacking the Supreme Court. The EU has launched a rule of law dialogue, but is limiting it to an exchange of correspondence with Warsaw. Why do you not react when fundamental European values are violated?

I admit that we are concerned about some of the developments. After all, Europe is not merely an economic union, but rather a community in which the same rights, values and democratic principles should prevail. However, I believe that Brussels is the right place for the rule of law dialogue, as European values, not relations between Warsaw and Berlin, are involved. We would welcome an open, honest and constructive dialogue between the Polish Government and the European Commission. We also recognise that there is a spirited debate in Polish politics and society. Poles can rightly be proud to have such a vibrant civil society.

A year ago, your predecessor Frank-Walter Steinmeier said he did not even want to think about the idea of imposing sanctions against Poland for violating the rule of law. Are you considering such ideas?

The aim of my first visit is to show how important Poland is for us and that we can trust each other. I am aware of the dark chapters of our two countries’ history, of Germany’s guilt and of the time needed to heal the major wounds, without ever forgetting the past. Particularly in view of our shared history, I am grateful that we are now more closely united as friends than perhaps we have ever been.

I want to work well and in a spirit of mutual trust with my counterpart Witold Waszczykowski. This includes listening to each other and conducting an honest dialogue where our positions diverge – that is part of a good friendship.

Before you became Foreign Minister, you advocated lifting the sanctions on Russia that were imposed following the annexation of Crimea and the war in eastern Ukraine. Have you changed your opinion in your new role?

Our position remains that if truly good and tangible progress is made in implementing the Minsk agreements through Moscow’s active participation, then we should think about gradually easing the sanctions that were imposed in connection with Russia’s actions in eastern Ukraine. Unfortunately, the situation remains as complicated as ever. Regrettably, there can be no talk of significant implementation.

The Crimea sanctions have nothing to do with that – they were imposed because of Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea. I do not know anyone who would demand or even consider lifting the sanctions that were imposed against Russia because of Crimea.

The West has rebuked Russia for infringing international law in Ukraine, where the conflict has claimed thousands of victims. At the same time, Germany is constructing a second Nord Stream gas pipeline. Isn’t that something of a contradiction? Are you taking objections raised by Poland into account in this matter?

Gas pipelines do not only transport Russian gas to Germany, but also to Poland, of course. However, the question that we must all ask ourselves is how can we prevent gas from being used as a political instrument against Europe. In this regard, it is important that we safeguard both the transit pipeline through Ukraine, as well as Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Poland’s interest in the Yamal pipeline. This has been clearly communicated to Russia as a prerequisite. Moreover, we must join up the European gas network more strongly so that outages of an original source can be replaced by another source at any time. We therefore take the concerns that have been raised in Poland very seriously. However, we ask people to understand that we want to stand by the liberalisation of the gas supply undertaken in Europe years ago. Since then, it is no longer politicians who make decisions about the gas supply, but European companies. Politicians are responsible for enforcing the right regulations. We are doing this in Germany, and also with respect to Russia.

Under the Trump administration, the US is threatening to scale back its commitment to NATO if Europeans do not increase their financial contribution. You recently said that achieving the two-percent target for defence expenditure was unrealistic. Aren’t you concerned that your resistance is weakening NATO?

In 2014, we reached a firm agreement in NATO to aim to move towards the two-percent guideline for defence expenditure within a decade. We stand by that, and this is what we are doing. Germany is taking a leading role in all of the reassurance measures in eastern Europe adopted by the alliance. Security, however, is about more than taking stock of military equipment; above all, it is about security policy dialogue, conflict prevention, work to stabilise fragile states, development policy and humanitarian aid. Our work in these areas needs to be just as decisive.

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