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Germany and Poland seek to diminish tensions with talks

Foreign ministers from both nations reaffirmed the longstanding friendship between their countries at a meeting on Thursday. 

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    German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, left, is welcomed by Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo prior to talks, in Warsaw, Poland, January, 2016.
    Alik Keplicz/AP Photo
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Germany and Poland sent their foreign ministers to meet on Thursday, amid growing tensions between the two European nations.

Despite months of friction, the two men focused on points of unity between the countries, rather than the rift that has grown between them.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the conference with his Polish counterpart, Witold Waszczykowski, that “Poles and Germans have gone a long way from hatred, alienation, and lack of mutual understanding to form trust and, eventually, friendship. It’s too precious to fall prey to political games.”

Given recent history between the two countries, this statement of support is significant. While the countries are historically strong allies, tensions have run high since the election of the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS).

Under new President Andrzej Duda, the Polish government has made several political reforms that alarmed Poles and Europeans alike.

In late December, the parliament passed legislation that had the potential to limit the power of the country’s constitutional check on government authority, the Constitutional Tribunal. The new administration also ignored old judicial appointments and attempted to pack the country’s court with its own followers.

The following month, the government passed similarly controversial media legislation. The new legislation put the state media directly under governmental control, a move that led to criticism coming from states around Europe and from independent media organizations like Reporters without Borders.

Poland's conservative shift under PiS has strained relations with Germany, who worked closely with Poland's previous government led by the center-right Civic Platform.

Mr. Waszczykowski criticized liberal European values when he told the German tabloid Bild in early January, “As if the world, in a Marxist fashion, were destined to evolve only in one direction—towards a new mix of cultures and races, a world of bicyclists and vegetarians.”

Waszczykowski told POLITICO in an July 2015 interview that German policy and Polish policy diverge in several key areas, including energy use, foreign refugees, and Eastern European policy.

Perhaps most importantly, Poland, and PiS in particular, regards Russia as a threat, and has asked for NATO bases in Central Europe. The German government, however, feels that granting Poland’s wish would provoke Russia. In an interview with the Berliner Zeitung, Waszczykowski accused Germany of "car[ing] more about Russia’s interests than the security of central and eastern European countries."

The new government has refused to give in to German criticism. Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo told Poland’s national newspaper Nasz Dziennik that, "Attacks in the foreign media, especially in Germany, are trying to soften Poland to show that like our predecessors, we should agree to everything wanted of us. The government will not bend to such pressure.”

Germany, in turn, has criticized Poland for its lack of openness towards refugees. Last September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel reminded Eastern Europe that their workers also benefit from open borders within Europe, a threat that has not significantly changed Eastern European attitudes towards refugees.

Like Waszczykowski, Ms. Syzdlo met with Mr. Steinmeier on Thursday, and announced plans to travel to Germany in February to discuss the refugee situation with Chancellor Merkel.

Thursday’s cordial meeting between Steinmeier and Waszczykowski was a step towards lessening tensions between the two countries. The two diplomats called each other by their first names. Waszczykowski wished Steinmeier a happy birthday.

As the two countries announced their continued friendship, Steinmeier quoted a Polish poet, Leszek Kolakowski,  saying “not everyone likes broccoli, but it’s not yet the reason to break a friendship.”

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