Merkel’s Final Weeks Marked by Fears EU Is Picking a Bad Fight

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Angela Merkel is worried that some European Union leaders and lawmakers are thrusting the EU into a fight with Poland that leaves no room for compromise and could end in disaster.

In her final weeks in the job, the German chancellor has publicly warned in her own carefully couched and diplomatic way about the EU’s tactics in the confrontation. Behind the scenes, she’s deeply concerned that the rush to strike back at Poland over a rule-of-law dispute could spiral out of control and eventually end up with Poland’s departure from the bloc in the worst-case scenario, said a person familiar with her thinking. 

As Europe’s most powerful leader, Merkel has often ignored those baying for immediate action and wielded patience as a political tool in negotiations to head off damaging outcomes. Having lived through Brexit, Merkel believes that carelessly tempting such prospects is reckless, the person said.

Her disquiet is about the EU’s current strategy and the increasingly confrontational attitude on both sides, which she believes could end up in a geopolitical catastrophe for the EU, bolstering authoritarianism in Poland and making the country more subject to outside influences.


The person, who was granted anonymity to speak more openly about Merkel’s world views, gives a rare insight into how the outgoing leader really sees things. On the other side of the Polish issue are leaders like Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte who say that the EU’s core values are at stake in this fight, which has seen Poland’s top court reject the primacy of the bloc’s laws. He and others insist the EU should be more than a pure economic grouping and focus more squarely on democracy, rule of law and equal rights.

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Merkel’s likely successor, Olaf Scholz and his social democratic party, have seemingly aligned themselves more closely to Rutte’s camp. But if Merkel is right, the risks for Europe will increase.

For now, the prospect of Poland leaving the EU is remote, since the bloc is popular at home and Poland remains dependent on the bloc’s funding. But the dispute isn’t going away anytime soon and will be a strong undercurrent at the summit of EU leaders later this week in Brussels.

European Council President Charles Michel, who runs the agenda for the summit, held several calls with groups of EU leaders on Monday, including Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, where he said he wants to avoid talking about Poland at the two-day meeting, although he expects it will be brought up anyway, according to two people familiar with the calls. Most of the leaders Michel spoke to agreed they didn’t want to risk a big clash at the summit, one of the people said.

Morawiecki used an appearance before the European Parliament Tuesday to blame the EU for overstepping its authority and of “financial blackmail.” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen pledged the bloc would take action against Poland’s flouting of EU law.

With Merkel about to step down, Poland will lose its most influential ally in the EU, and the bloc will lose a moderating influence who had prevented earlier crises with the bloc’s eastern neighbors from escalating.

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The outgoing chancellor is spending some of her remaining time in office pressing other leaders in a series of farewell visits to consider the larger consequences of pushing a powerful ally like Poland to the brink. She also views recent moves by Warsaw as ruthless, too aggressive and provocative.

Speaking on a visit to Belgium last week, Merkel said the EU needs to find compromises without giving up on its principles. “We need to intensify our talks with the Polish government to find a solution — political problems can’t always be solved in court.”

It’s not just the face-off over the recent court ruling. Poland also faces fines over its judicial reforms and legal action over anti-LGBTQ laws that could see its cohesion funds blocked. Billions of euros in Covid-19 recovery funding to both Poland and Hungary remain in limbo due to rule-of-law-related matters as both countries are seen to be choking fundamental freedoms.

EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said in an interview with Bloomberg Television that within days or weeks the bloc could trigger the so-called conditionality mechanism, which withholds payments from the budget to member states accused of democratic backsliding.

After the Polish prime minister renewed his attack in parliament, some European lawmakers insisted the bloc had to take strong action.

“What the Polish government is doing is an attack on the very existence of the European Union itself,” Ska Keller, president of the Greens/EFA Group, said in a statement. “The commission must launch infringement procedures against the government of Poland and launch financial sanctions.”

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Even other German officials have said the EU must take a stand. “The European Union is fighting for its identity,” Germany’s Europe minister, Michael Roth, said after a meeting in Luxembourg. “I don’t see any room for compromises here.” Members of parliament have warned they will take legal action against the commission, the EU’s executive branch, if it doesn’t act soon against Poland.

The German chancellor has been criticized in recent years for shielding Eastern European strongmen such as Hungarian premier Viktor Orban. But even as she condemns some of their policies, she believes that the EU should always maintain negotiations rather than resort to legal threats and court actions that could lead to unpredictable consequences, the person familiar with her thinking said.

For Merkel, who grew up in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin wall, keeping the EU together is both essential and existential. For her, unlike for most other major EU leaders, the bloc won’t be complete until the Balkan nations of south eastern Europe are also members.

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