Who would be German? Not so long ago Poland’s then foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski issued a plea for decisive German leadership of the EU. The other day the present Warsaw government demanded Berlin pay reparations for the second world war. The turnround captures two of the EU’s contemporary challenges: how to respond when formerly communist member states turn away from liberal democracy towards the authoritarian nationalism that European integration was supposed to dissolve; and how to find a political dynamic that does not see unavoidable German pre-eminence slide into unacceptable hegemony.
Look around at what is happening in eastern and central Europe — at Russian revanchism and resurgent nationalism in Hungary, Poland and elsewhere — and you see history returning with a vengeance. With it comes an old question. Is it to be a European Germany or a German Europe?
Mr Sikorski’s plea, made in the shadow of the Brandenburg Gate, reflected a fear in 2011 that the euro crisis would bring down not just the single currency but also the EU itself: “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.”
Poland, he added, was looking for leadership, not domination. Mr Sikorski’s words spoke to a different age. In 2015 Poland’s modernising government of Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform was replaced by the unapologetically nationalist Law and Justice party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
Formally, Mr Kaczynski holds no public office; in reality he leads an administration set on dismantling the open society that replaced communist rule. Poland has turned from the future to the past. Recommended The Future of Europe Project: a letter from the editor Hegemon or political dwarf?
Germany in the age of Emmanuel Macron Monetary union comes at a price for Europe The efforts of the redoubtable European Commission vice-president Frans Timmermans have not stopped Mr Kaczynski from undermining the independence of Poland’s courts and chipping away at press freedom in order to tighten his grip on power.
Nationalism always goes in search of enemies. When Vladimir Putin’s Russia is not in its sights, Warsaw casts Germany as the historic villain. Poland gave up any claim to reparations in 1952. Now it says they are a matter of national “dignity”.
Nationalism drifts easily into xenophobia. Its refusal to accept Syrian refugees has seen Warsaw embrace the nativism that separates out the supposed special interests of “ethnic whites”. The result was visible last weekend when fascist thugs hijacked rallies marking the anniversary of Polish independence.
Law and Justice is not alone. Viktor Orban in Hungary claims to be the first of the post-communist premiers to denounce western Europe’s attachment to liberal democracy and to entrench his own power by eroding democratic checks and balances. Both leaders have sought to use the 2015 refugee crisis to draw the Czech Republic and Slovakia into the authoritarian orbit.
Where they part company is Russia: Mr Orban struggles to conceal an infatuation with Mr Putin. In western capitals politicians have begun to wonder aloud whether the EU’s eastern enlargement was a historic mistake. Poland is the largest recipient of Union funding, accounting for about 10 per cent of the Brussels budget. There is scarcely a road, power station or public construction site in Hungary that has not been partly financed by the EU.
Yet even as they bank the cheques Messrs Kaczynski and Orban sneer at the EU’s binding commitment to democracy and the rule of law. One answer, under discussion in Brussels and Paris as well as Berlin, is to turn off the tap of financial support.
Governments that stifle opposition at home, defy rulings of the European Court of Justice and refuse to share the burden of the migrant crisis should not be bankrolled by the EU. Why not see whether they are ready to pay a price for their illiberalism?
The idea appeals to fairness. I doubt whether it would work. To say that the old Europe of liberal democracies would have been better off without the newcomers from the east is to ignore the counterfactual. Denied access to the west, the formerly communist states would more likely have fallen to chaos and been pulled back towards Russia.
Read the full column by Philip Stephens in the Financial Times.