Lars Klingbeil is now doing foreign policy - for the SPD. A trip to Warsaw makes it clear how difficult it will be to restart relations with Poland. The SPD leader admits German mistakes, but finds few listeners.
If things go badly for Lars Klingbeil, soon more people in Gotha, Thuringia, will know about the SPD chairman's trip to Warsaw than in all of Poland. A Gotha local politician and party colleague discovered the cleaver, which could not be overlooked in any crowd, on Tuesday in front of the memorial of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising. That is the place where SPD icon Willy Brandt spontaneously got on his knees during his visit to Poland in 1970 and asked for forgiveness on behalf of his country. Needless to say, the two comrades take a selfie in the blazing midday heat, which could go viral among the social democrats based in East Germany. On the other hand, the interest of Polish media representatives in the visit of the chairman of the German governing party in Warsaw is limited - even though Klingbeil even has some souvenirs in his luggage.
In the Polish Parliament Sejm, Klingbeil formulates a sentence that he has already said twice in a similar way, but not in Poland, where no other German politician has said it either. Klingbeil says: "When I say that the (German) relationship with Russia is changing fundamentally, then that also has something to do with admitting the mistake that we are repeatedly formulating criticism from Eastern European countries, from the Baltic States was, saw too little in Germany; that we didn't see security needs enough, didn't listen enough." Who this "we" includes everything remains open. But the SPD is definitely included. The signal: The "lasting peace in Europe can only exist with, not against, Russia" SPD is history.
Klingbeil wants to prescribe more empathy for Eastern Europe for the SPD, but his initiative has another aspect. In autumn, the party hosts the meeting of the European Social Democratic Party (SPE) in Berlin, the coalition of the left-wing mainstream parties. Klingbeil, who after his election as chairman agreed with his co-boss Saskia Esken to work on international issues, wants to work to ensure that "social democracy becomes strong again in Eastern Europe." Overall, Social Democrats have provided eight heads of government in Europe and are involved in 13 governments, Klingbeil calculates. Bringing these parties together and promoting social democratic electoral victories in other EU countries is the equivalent of Klingbeil's much-noticed demand that Germany must become a "leading power" - like the SPD within the SPE, like Klingbeil in the SPD.
"I actually wanted to start the year quietly," says Klingbeil, looking back at the 2021 election year, which was as successful as it was exhausting, after he laid flowers at the ghetto memorial and the neighboring Willy Brandt memorial. The election victory was just nine months ago, but it has been ages since the Russian invasion of Ukraine began; stop before the turning point proclaimed by Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz on February 27th. Now Klingbeil has to correct the image people in Germany and abroad have of the SPD: a party that puts German interests and relations with Russia ahead of the well-being of the smaller, Eastern European countries.
Especially in Poland, the inner-German debate about Olaf Scholz's hesitant positioning on Nord Stream 2 and the delivery of heavy weapons confirms a long-held mistrust in the German government cultivated by the ruling party PiS. Especially since Warsaw fueled the conflict when the government claimed that Germany had promised to supply modern tanks as part of a ring swap - something which is so disputed in Berlin. Nevertheless, the Foreign Minister of the SPD wants to clean up the image damage as much as possible so that his chancellor can have an impact.
After the Brandt award, Klingbeil stands in a large hall of the Sejm next to Wlodzimierz Czarzasty, the chairman of the Polish SPD sister party SLD, and declares German understanding of the wrong course towards Russia. "It's very good that the SPD is saying something like that in our Polish parliament," praises Czarzasty, whose SLD has formed a social-democratic bloc with Robert Biedron's smaller Wiosna party - the Nowa Lewica (New Left). However, Czarzasty warns, Klingbeil and the SPD must translate their changed attitude into practical action.
The only well-known Polish politician to receive Klingbeil on his visit to Warsaw, which had been announced a week earlier - nobody from the government had time - doesn't bother to praise him for long either. He told Klingbeil that the Germans would have to get 12 billion euros from Brussels so that Poland could help the 2 million Ukrainians in the country with 500 euros a month per person. In addition, all countries except Poland, the USA and Canada would have to spend more money on military aid to Ukraine. Poland handed over material worth 1.5 billion euros, the other European countries material worth less than 0.5 billion. Czarzasty raises the same accusation with regard to financial aid and again puts all sorts of figures in the room.
Klingbeil and the federal government would quantify the aid provided differently, but the SPD leader does not go into it. Klingbeil reminds that an agreement on help with refugee care must be preceded by an EU agreement on general burden sharing when taking in migrants. Poland's impressive solidarity with the Ukrainians stands in sharp contrast to its rejection of Muslim or African refugees. In the style of a secondary foreign minister, Klingbeil once again explained to the handful of Polish media representatives the scope of Scholz's change of course: investing 100 billion euros in the Bundeswehr and sending weapons, including "heavy artillery" to a conflict zone, "these are for Germany big steps". When Klingbeil mentions Scholz's change of era, the interpreter does not translate the word into Polish as if it were a standing term.
The fact that Germany supports Ukraine in any significant way at all and supplies 800,000 Ukrainians itself, also from its own wallet, seems to be unknown in Poland - including Czarzasty from Nowa Lewica, who, together with Donald Tusk's Civic Platform PO and other opposition parties, will govern in the coming year wants to replace PiS from Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki and party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski; in the case of early elections in the room, we would be happy to do so earlier. But in Poland, where the PiS has introduced extensive social benefits, left-wing parties are having a hard time.
Nowa Lewica would be well served in the alliance with a result of 10 percent and could at least become a junior partner in a new government. Practically all parties in Berlin hope for such a change, because the PiS is not a contact for any German party. On the contrary: stirring up resentment against Germany is still part of the core business of the ultra-conservative party. The eternal distrust of Berlin, slanderous allegations and the routinely put forward demand for new reparations payments are far from being felt by all Poles, but by the middle class, among the elderly and in the countryside, who like the PiS with its nationalist-Catholic course courts.
The attempt to restart relations by the traffic light government, which hurriedly traveled to Warsaw in the person of Annalena Baerbock and Olaf Scholz for the inaugural visit, was well received, but has long fizzled out. Even the remaining liberal media have accepted Morawiecki's claim that he personally had to persuade the Germans to deliver tanks to Ukraine. Kazcynski, who recently left the government, recently said in a public appearance that he was not at all sure whether the strengthening of the Bundeswehr initiated by Scholz was really aimed at Russia - or perhaps at Poland. In this way, the PiS keeps fueling the latent distrust of many Poles towards Berlin.
For Klingbeil, who was in Lithuania the day before his visit to Warsaw, the contrast could hardly have been greater. In addition to a visit to the German NATO troops stationed there, Klingbeil was received by the Lithuanian President's security adviser and spoke to the Baltic country's top military and the chairman of the defense committee. Even Prime Minister Ingrida Šimonytė, although a Christian Democrat, took 50 minutes for the German Social Democrat. The conversation was "benevolent". Lithuanians value Germany as a NATO partner.
However, Klingbeil does not seem unhappy about his visit to Warsaw. Re-establishing relations with Poland and other countries in Eastern Europe will be a long-term process for the federal government and the SPD. It's not the first attempt to form a lasting alliance with the self-confident Warsaw, which is striving for a leading role in Europe. The question is whether perseverance and tolerance for frustration will last beyond the next major scandal this time.