It will be a short but significant visit to Western European capitals. On Monday (February 12), the new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk will first meet with the French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris, and then on the same day he will go to Berlin, where he will be met by Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
For the liberal Polish prime minister, the visit to Berlin will be particularly sensitive. On the one hand, he wants to repair the damaged relationship with Germany, but at the same time he must be careful not to get too close to his western neighbor.
Jaroslav Kaczynski's national-conservative opposition party Pravo i Pravda (PiS), which calls Tusk a "German agent", will mark any careless step on the Berlin stage as a "betrayal of national interests".
Kaczynski: Tusk as Hitler
Kaczynski's party, which has ruled Poland for the past eight years, has seriously damaged the country's position within the EU.
She relied above all on a close military alliance with the USA, where her favorite partner in Washington was Donald Trump, and she spoiled relations with France and Germany. Before the arrival of Tusk, German-Polish relations were in the biggest crisis since the fall of the Iron Curtain.
In the pre-election campaign before the parliamentary elections in October last year, PiS even declared Germany the greatest threat to Poland's sovereignty, and Tusk a representative of foreign, or German, interests.
After the defeat in the elections, Kaczynski even intensified his anti-German rhetoric. He compared Tusk's attempts to restore the rule of law in the country to Adolf Hitler's methods.
Soltz congratulated and invited to visit, Tusk waited
When Poland's new center-left government was finally sworn in in mid-December 2023, the enthusiasm in Berlin was palpable. In the Bundestag, Chancellor Scholz spontaneously congratulated his new colleague Tusk on taking power and offered him cooperation. "Poland's role in and for Europe is greater today than ever," said Scholz, expressing hope that Germany and Poland will improve bilateral relations "on the basis of equality."
The chancellor said he hoped to welcome Tusk to Berlin "in the coming weeks".
However, almost two months had to pass before Tusk headed to the German capital. The difficult process of taking over power, complicated by the policy of total blockade of PiS, initially relegated foreign policy to the background. The debate on the media and the first steps in the restoration of the rule of law were considered more important than foreign policy initiatives.
But there were other reasons as well. Tusk is acting extremely cautiously towards Germany so as not to give right-wing populists a reason for criticism, Piotr Buras, the head of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Warsaw office, told Pyotr Buras.
The political scientist recalls that Tusk did not mention Germany at all in his first address as prime minister. In his opinion, the order of the visits – first Paris, then Berlin – is not accidental.
Anti-German sentiment in Poland
"Eight years of anti-German propaganda left a deep mark on Polish society. "PiS imposed a narrative in discussions about Germany," explains Buras. That is why Tusk will be very reserved at least until the European elections in June. "He needs more time," emphasizes Buras.
"Tusk is a kind of hostage to PiS's rhetoric about Germany," confirms Agnješka Lada-Konefal, deputy director of the German-Polish Institute (DPI) in Darmstadt.
He emphasizes that the German side understands well the situation of the head of the Polish government. "Berlin does not show disappointment, impatience or mistrust," says Lada-Konefal. The Germans understood that they must not impose anything on Warsaw, that they "must not behave like a big brother who keeps a promise to a smaller one".
Both Buras and Lada-Konefal agree that there will be no return in German-Polish relations to the time before PiS came to power.
There is no going back
After the democratic changes in 1989, the first non-communist minister of foreign affairs, Krzysztof Skubiševski, spoke of Poland and Germany as a community of interests, and later even spoke of the fateful connection of the two countries. The big brother – Germany – became Poland's advocate and opened the way for the smaller brother in the EU and NATO.
"Today we are in a completely different situation," emphasizes Lada-Konefal. Tusk's influence as an experienced politician who headed the European Council for five years has grown enormously. Poland's role in the world has changed significantly due to the quick and generous military aid to Ukraine and the acceptance of millions of Ukrainian refugees.
At the same time, Germany has lost much of its luster due to its misguided policy towards Russia and domestic political problems. The balance of power has changed in favor of Poland.
Meanwhile, the process of normalization between the two countries began with small steps. The Polish government has announced that it will release funds blocked by the previous government for German language lessons for children of the German minority in Poland. And a German-Polish textbook for teaching history, which has been blocked for political reasons, will soon be approved.
There is a need for discussion, for example, when it comes to migration policy and EU reform, and especially when it comes to Berlin's efforts to introduce the principle of majority decision-making on foreign policy issues within the EU.
And like the sword of Damocles, the issue of compensation for Polish war victims still hangs over German-Polish relations. Last week, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski appealed to Germany to find a way to resolve this issue.
But, regardless of all the thaws, relations between Germany and Poland will probably never be like they were in the 1990s.
At the same time, however, the new leadership in Warsaw is aware that, given the crisis in the US, where Trump's Republicans are blocking aid to Ukraine, and Russia's increasing aggressiveness, Poland's greatest interest still lies in a close alliance with Berlin and Paris.