Foreign Minister Steinmeier gave an interview to the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza on the eve of his trip to Warsaw.
You are coming to Warsaw barely a week after the European Commission decided to check on the rule of law in Poland. What are your expectations going into this visit?
In Warsaw, I will be visiting friends, good neighbours and close European partners which whom I have a lot to talk about. And I hope and trust that we will continue together along the path we have pursued hand in hand over the last 25 years since the Iron Curtain was torn down. There are certainly enough subjects to talk about, even just in view of our shared responsibility for Europe. It is very important to focus on what we have in common and do all we can to shore up the European house.
Is the German Government concerned at what has been happening in Poland since the PiS (law and justice party) entered government?
We Germans feel a strong connection to our Polish neighbours. That applies in politics, trade and industry, and especially at the level of our societies and cultural exchange. It also applies to the media, as there is a great and growing interest among the people of Germany in what happens in Poland. Poland is host to an unprecedentedly dense network of German correspondents reporting back daily – and not just from Warsaw. We will continue to need close and trusting cooperation with Poland, particularly in Europe. In that context, it is hardly surprising that we Germans show a keen interest in Polish home affairs.
There are many voices in the German media claiming that democracy in Poland is in jeopardy following the formation of a government by the PiS. Do you share that opinion?
We are fortunate to have a very lively and diverse media landscape in Germany, just like Poland. Surely, therefore, you will also have read the opinions and commentaries tending in exactly the opposite direction. Important representatives of your countries, President Duda and Foreign Minister Waszczykowski among them, have written contributions for the German media and given interviews. This is an expression of our mutual interest and can only bode well for the state of our relations. Now we have a structured dialogue between the European Commission and the Polish Government on very particular legislative measures. One shouldn’t judge things superficially; the matter requires detailed analysis. I have the impression that the will to do so is there on both sides. And I think the European level and the Commission itself provide a good forum for discussing these topics.
Martin Schulz of your party recently compared the PiS government to Putin’s Russia. Do you share that view?
Many people have been voicing their opinions in recent days and weeks, and many of them have sought parallels to draw. I am always very careful about drawing comparisons between different countries. Centuries of European and especially Polish history, steeped time and again in tragedy, have understandably resulted in everybody having certain things they are very sensitive to. We have a lot of respect for the Polish people’s historic and indomitable will to enjoy freedom and sovereignty, self‑determination and democracy.
On the other hand, Poland’s Deputy Prime Minister Piotr Gliński said recently that, because of the crimes perpetrated during the war, Germans had no right to tell the Poles how to behave. Is he right? Maybe you ought to stay in Berlin?
We Germans are well aware of the tragic history between us and of the historical responsibility that it places upon Germany. It must be in both our interests not to have that history instrumentalised in current politics, by anyone. I feel very humbled to think of the gift of friendship that Poland has given the people of Germany. There are certain moments of our shared history that have made a particularly lasting impression on me. One of them is Willy Brandt going down on his knees in Warsaw. It is an incredible good fortune that we have such close ties in Europe today. That is far too valuable a thing for us to jeopardise for the sake of short‑term political gain. The important thing is to treat one other with respect and as equals within the EU. We must not at any cost regress into estrangement and rejection.
Where do you get your information about Poland? I ask because it has been claimed in our media that Western politicians get their knowledge of Poland from erroneous sources.
As Foreign Minister, I have the privilege of being able to talk to my Polish colleagues often and preferably directly. There are also a lot of Poles to hold talks with in Berlin. Witold Waszczykowski visited me shortly after taking office, and we had a long conversation. My staff are also in constant contact with their Polish partners. The more interesting question is how our fellow citizens see one another. A lot of passion and energy has gone into creating a dense network of initiatives and exchanges at that level. A prime example is the European University Viadrina, which straddles both sides of the river Oder. People who’ve studied together see one another as friends and partners, not adversaries. Of course, that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t want to debate quite fiercely with one another.
We also have voices in Poland claiming that the European Commission’s decision is an attempt to interfere in domestic affairs and calls into question the decisions of a democratically elected parliament. Don’t you think the Commission’s response goes a bit too far?
Let’s not forget that it was the EU member states that, years ago, urged the Commission to take this approach to matters pertaining to the rule of law. Besides, the Commission has emphasised its intention to proceed in close liaison with Poland. We should have faith in that.
Do you think that Poland might have its EU voting rights withdrawn?
I don’t like to think that might happen. Right now, we should just wait and see how Poland and the Commission figure out with regard to the unresolved issues.
If I had asked you a few months ago about the state of German-Polish relations, you would most probably have told me they were the best we’d ever had. How are things looking today? And what lies ahead for the next few months?
That’s not something you can ever know for sure in politics. I for one am keen to do whatever it takes to make sure the friendship that has taken decades to build is never called into question again. Alongside that, there is a mountain of challenges that we in Europe will have to tackle together this year. And we have the pleasant opportunity to celebrate the silver anniversary of our neighbourly relations and cooperative partnership together with the new Polish Government. In that regard, we have given ourselves a lot to do. I will be talking to Witold Waszczykowski about our joint plans today. A few days ago, we unveiled a shared logo in Warsaw as well. I believe we have every reason to look forward to these activities in the coming months.