Poland’s PiS party puts country at loggerheads with Germany as poll looms | Poland

As campaign videos go, it’s arguably one of the less sophisticated. To the booming soundtrack of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries, a man with a strong foreign accent makes a phone call from the German embassy in Warsaw. His request: to arrange a call between Germany’s chancellor and Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS).

Asked if he would like to speak with Olaf Scholz about Poland’s retirement age, raised under Donald Tusk, Poland’s former prime minister and the current opposition leader, Kaczyński refuses. “Tusk has gone; these customs have changed,” he says, and hangs up. An economically resurgent Poland, implies the video, will not dance to Berlin’s tune, all thanks to the firm nationalist leadership of the PiS.

Poland’s relations with Germany have always been tumultuous, but the extent to which the PiS campaign in the run-up the parliamentary elections on 15 October has been reduced to a crude attack on Tusk’s supposed obeisance to Germany is extraordinary.

Since last year, the Polish government has been feeding its electoral base by demanding war reparations of €1.3tn from Germany. But, as the election campaign has intensified, the central thrust of the PiS campaign has been to portray “Herr” Donald Tusk as subservient or even in the pay of Berlin. A regular claim of Kaczyński’s is that the Germans want “to embed” Tusk in Poland “in order to privatise Polish assets”.

On Sunday the PiS leader claimed that Germany was so desperate for cheap Russian energy that it would deceive Ukraine and restore relations with Moscow. The German national character, he said, “is to strive for domination at all costs”.

Donald Tusk’s opponents are keen to paint him as a figure under the influence of Berlin and Brussels. Photograph: Jakub Porzycki/Anadolu agency/Getty Images

Such is the tone that even Jacek Czaputowicz, a former foreign minister in the PiS government, has recoiled, saying political interests are inflicting long-term damage on Warsaw’s relations with Berlin.

According to a report to which he contributed, Poland, a key security provider in Europe, is spurning its chance to become a global leader by “instrumentalising relations with Germany for domestic political purposes.”

“Building trust and credibility as one of the EU leaders requires broad engagement in policies that burden not only central and eastern Europe. It also needs building a positive ambience in relations with the key European allies, Germany included,” reads the report, prepared for the Warsaw Security Forum this week.

But with PiS ahead in the polls, there is no sign that the anti-German rhetoric will stop, and there are increasing signs that Berlin is prepared to answer back. In fact, towards the end of last month, at a campaign rally in Nuremberg, Scholz did just that.

German diplomats have generally regarded it as self-defeating to become embroiled in Poland’s rhetoric. But they broke that rule after a recent scandal over the fast-tracking of Schengen visas in return for cash.

From the outset the PiS campaign has been built around two interrelated themes – the supposed threat of immigration and the idea that Tusk’s election would represent a triumph for Berlin.

So when, mid-campaign, the visa scandal emerged from within the Polish foreign ministry, it was highly embarrassing. It suggested that officials in consulates around the world had been running an illegal system through which people in Africa and Asia paid large sums of money to obtain a Schengen visa, which would then enable them to also travel to other countries in the visa-free zone. A system, in other words, that was in stark contrast to the hardline anti-migrant rhetoric touted by the PiS.

The fallout of the scandal was significant. Piotr Wawrzyk, the deputy foreign minister, lost his job. Seven officials have been charged with corruption. The PiS government has acknowledged that hundreds of visas were sold illegally but insists the scale was much more limited than originally claimed.

It has tried to change the subject but questions continue to be raised. Ylva Johansson, the EU’s home affairs commissioner, has demanded “clarifications” over what happened. And in Nuremberg, Scholz accused the Poles of hyping anti-migrant rhetoric while throwing open the doors to migrants through Polish consulates.

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Jarosław Kaczyński speaking from a podium in front of a red backdropJarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the PiS party, wants to show that Warsaw will not dance to the tune of Berlin. Photograph: Grzegorz Celejewski/Agencja Wyborcza/Reuters

It should be the case, he said, that “everyone who comes to Poland is registered there and undergoes the asylum procedure there, instead of visas that were somehow granted for money, deepening the problem”.

The German response immediately provoked Mateusz Morawiecki, the Polish prime minister, and Zbigniew Rau, the foreign minister, to warn Scholz to stop interfering in Poland’s elections.

The PiS responded with an avalanche of criticism for Tusk. Zbigniew Ziobro, Poland’s justice minister, said last week: “Unfortunately, Donald Tusk has always pursued German interests, not Polish ones, which is why the Germans are so involved in the Polish elections and why they so basely accuse us of the problems they themselves created; namely, they invited millions of refugees to Europe without asking anyone, and now they brazenly … [say] this is our fault.”

Poland has also seized on Berlin’s support for the lifting of the ban on Ukrainian grain imports. Cem Özdemir, the German agriculture minister, was targeted for saying that the European Commission had taken the “right decision” in lifting the ban.

Radosław Fogiel, the head of the Polish parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, retorted: “The German minister, representing the country that blocked financial aid to Ukraine and sanctions against Russia [and] held back allies who wanted to transfer weapons, is the last person who should make these kinds of comments.”

Others have piled in, returning to the old charge that Angela Merkel, the former German chancellor, damaged Europe by letting in 1.5 million asylum seekers in 2015.

But Germany is less interested in the past than in the here and now. About 204,000 people requested asylum in Germany during the first eight months of 2023, 77% more than in the same period last year, not including the 1.1 million Ukrainian war refugees. Scholz is under electoral pressure to come up with answers, and is beginning to lose his patience with Warsaw. With less than a fortnight until election day, relations are likely to get worse before they get better.

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