April 9, 2014

Poland – Germany and the Neighbors to the East

"Tell them we exist"
  • The EU’s relations with its eastern European neighbors have become a pressing political issue as a result of the crisis in Ukraine. What role does German-Polish cooperation have to play in this issue? This was the topic of a panel discussion entitled "Poland – Germany and the Neighbors to the East" which was held to mark the 40th anniversary of the Robert Bosch Stiftung’s promotion of the special relationship between these two neighboring countries.

When the Iron Curtain descended upon Europe a number of decades ago, few people believed in reconciliation, understanding, and exchange between the East and the West. One of those people was the former German President Richard von Weizsäcker, who attended the event and who was thanked by Professor Joachim Rogall, Chief Executive Officer of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, in his opening speech: "As a trustee, you had an important part to play in the Foundation setting out on this path 40 years ago."

In the early days, the primary focus was on facilitating interpersonal encounters and on making the borders more permeable, said Rogall. For example, more than 1,700 Polish students of German were able to travel to what was then West Germany for further studies thanks to the support of the Robert Bosch Stiftung, and many groups of high school and university students were able to visit each other. The Polish ambassador Dr. Jerzy Margański said the following in his welcome address: "The Foundation is one of the most important interfaces for German-Polish relations: it established a culture of dialog, put structures in place, and resulted in there being stakeholders on both sides who could be relied upon." He cited some current examples, such as the German-Polish Media Days, the creation of a Polish guest professorship at Mainz University, and the publication of the 50-volume The Polish Library by Suhrkamp, as coordinated by the German Institute of Polish Studies in Darmstadt.

German-Polish relations underwent a change following the collapse of the Eastern bloc, and this was reflected in the Foundation’s programs – from then on, the focus was also on supporting Poland on its way to joining the EU and NATO. Poland went from being a recipient of support to being one of the Foundation’s supporting partners. "This is now a partnership between equals!" emphasized Joachim Rogall, who went on to say that a shared concern was now above all promoting cooperation with other eastern European countries such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia.

Concerns about developments in Ukraine

The panel discussion which followed in front of some 150 guests, which was moderated by Bettina Klein of the Deutschlandfunk radio station, focused in particular on the Ukraine conflict and relations with Russia. The key question to be discussed was whether the direct diplomatic talks between Russia, Ukraine, and the EU, which were initiated by Germany, would result in a de-escalation of the crisis.

The Austrian journalist, writer, and translator Martin Pollack, the Russian-speaking Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov, and the former vice president of the European Commission Günter Verheugen were all skeptical. Kurkov believes that Putin is intentionally trying to destabilize eastern Ukraine in order to justify military intervention, while Verheugen lamented the immense pace of the destabilization: "A lot of governments have failed to understand that Ukraine is at risk of being bled dry. This would trigger a dangerous economic and social downward spiral." He also stressed that Ukraine’s territorial integrity was the responsibility of the whole of Europe.

Only the Polish ambassador to the EU Marek Prawda was a little more optimistic, observing that for the past six months since the conflict between Russia and Ukraine came to a head, there has been a common European issue for which solutions are being jointly sought. As a result, he remains optimistic. In particular, he mentioned the "Weimar Triangle," in other words the close cooperation between France, Germany, and Poland. Günter Verheugen concurred with him: "The real axis of stability in the EU is Paris, Berlin, and Warsaw."

"The idea of European unity doesn’t just belong to us – it belongs to everyone!"

Verheugen warned against giving Russia the power to veto the eastward expansion of the EU and NATO. "This is not a decision for us or for Russia – sovereign states should be able to choose for themselves." There should also not be any hiatus in EU expansion, he said. "Neighborliness is an evolutionary process. The idea of European unity doesn’t just belong to us – it belongs to everyone!" Andrey Kurkov argued that visa freedom was far more important than military assistance: "Europe must remain open for Ukrainians."

A fundamental criticism raised by Martin Pollack was that many people in the West knew very little about their neighbors in the East, or about their language and their cultural and political situation. Programs of the kind that the Robert Bosch Stiftung has been supporting for decades are therefore very important, he said. "The crisis also represents an opportunity for Ukrainian literature and culture, because people are now beginning to take an interest in them." Marek Prawda spoke of an encounter with a Ukrainian writer. A few years ago, he asked the writer what he should say about Ukraine in the West. "Tell them we exist," was the writer’s response. The Polish ambassador to the EU therefore made the following appeal at the end of the discussion: "We need to give a name to their dreams, understand what they are saying, and take them seriously, because their values are also our values."

Online Special

The Robert Bosch Stiftung has supported German-Polish relations for 40 years. Originally a pioneering achievement, the Foundation’s work has created a close-knit network that remains intact today. An exploration of a long friendship.

Audio Statements

Jerzy Margański, Polish ambassador to Germany
Marek Prawda, Polish ambassador to the EU
Günter Verheugen, former member of the EU Commission
Andrey Kurkow, Ukrainian author
Martin Pollack, journalist, author, and translator
Joachim Rogall, Chief Executive Officer Robert Bosch Stiftung


Agnieszka Surwiłło-Hahn
Phone: +49 (0)711 46084-689
Elisabeth van Gelder
Phone: +49 (07)11 46084-146

Picture Gallery

Marek Prawda, Polish ambassador to the EU, talking to Richard von Weizsäcker, former President of Germany, and Ingrid Hamm, Chief Executive Officer of the Robert Bosch Stiftung