In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Dr. Thomas Bagger, Germany’s Ambassador to the Republic of Poland. They talk about the EU Energy crisis, German eastern policy, EU response to the war in Ukraine, and Polish-German relations.
Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): How would you define the success of your mission as a recently appointed Ambassador of Germany to Poland, given a strained relationship between our countries?
Thomas Bagger (TB): The Polish-German relationship is a long and complex one – it carries a lot of history on both sides. That history has always been a part of our reality. The real measure of success is identifying to which degree we can realize the great potential that this relationship has in all its various dimensions – in terms of politics, security, energy, economy, culture, youth exchange, and city partnerships. There is so much that is going on! But in this world of upheaval and geopolitical change we also have to take a fresh look at these matters and see what kind of potential is there for tomorrow. This will be my job and my task for the next few years.
LJ: Is there any room for maneuvering on the German side in terms of the paying WWII damages to Poland?
TB: History will always be a part of our relationship. The issue of the war, occupation, and destruction of Poland by Germany during the Nazi years has a legal, a moral, a human, and a pragmatic dimension. We need to be aware of what happened and of Germany’s continuing responsibility. However, we should not lose sight of the long process of reconciliation and cooperation, which is already behind us.
This process started in the 1960s and accelerated after the fall of the Iron Curtain. Thirty years ago, we signed a Treaty of Good Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation. In 1991, we created a German-Polish Youth Office (GPYO). Today, Poland is integrated in the European Union and in NATO. So, we have built a European political harbor in which Germany and Poland are good neighbors and this is what guides our relationship.
Therefore, in terms of the legal dimension of the reparations, the German position is very clear: something that happened 80 years ago is no longer considered an issue – it is legally closed. Politically, we have moved on. However, morally, and in the human dimension, it is absolutely clear that this process of reconciliation and acknowledgement was never finished. This is why we continue to talk about it, to commemorate these events, and why we will continue to think about how we can turn the rhetoric of reconciliation into practical action. This process will not stop here.
Nevertheless, given everything that is happening around us, it is not exactly a foreign-policy logic that leads the Polish government or political parties to discuss this issue right now. If there is any logic behind it, it is not to improve the Polish-German relationship. This is being done for other reasons and we will have to deal with that.
LJ: If this situation on the Polish side persists, the relationship on the German side might also change? Would this put our partnership in a different light?
TB: One of the good things about becoming a German ambassador to Poland is that you work in a place that is really important from Berlin’s perspective. What you have to report, what are you trying to say or do is being noticed and recognized in Germany, because the Polish-German partnership is not only important for the both of us, but it is also significant for the functioning of the entire project of an integrated Europe. There can only be a strong Europe if there is a strong and functional German-Polish relationship.
This is the over-riding strategic perspective that guides Berlin. I am quite confident that, for the time being, the approach of Berlin will be to take the notion of ‘trying to be a good neighbor to Poland’ and try to make offers for practical cooperation in various policy fields. Hopefully, the Polish side will also recognize that this kind of cooperation is also in Poland’s best interest.
Electoral seasons are difficult in democracies – things get exaggerated. It is a time when you try to mobilize (also by using emotions). However, from a German point of view, we will continue to raise our eyes on what is really important: a close partnership that can come even closer to realizing its full potential of this neighborhood.
I do not want to speculate about what might happen if we talk too long about it, but, to be very honest, I think that if you paint a caricature of your neighbor, it will have an effect over time. However, I will also say that this is not a problem that only we have to deal with when it comes to the Polish public discourse.
It is also true that – vice versa – the German perspective of Poland is a particular one. Perhaps, Poland does not always get the attention, curiosity, or investment that it deserves. In Berlin, we somehow think that it is either not worth the effort, or it is considered too difficult or problematic. Therefore, what is needed to make this partnership work is an investment from both sides.
LJ: You have been at the top of policy planning for a number of year. What is the rationale behind the German policy vis-à-vis Russia in the last twenty years?
TB: First of all, we need to be careful with the notion of ‘policy planning’. George Kennan, the father of policy planning, famously said that all his efforts to bring more reason and long-term perspective to policymaking have actually failed. In this line of work, everyone thinks that you have a crystal ball, when, actually, all that you are trying to do is to make sense of the present that you live in. This alone is already quite complicated.
When it comes to Russia, ever since the peaceful unification of Germany in the late 1980s, there have been this concept that we need to build strong ties with Russia in the form of a Common European Home – as Mikhail Gorbachev used to call it. Even though this perspective has somewhat slipped away, and we realized how Russia was increasingly defining its own future (first, without the West; then, in opposition to the West; and now, in confrontation with the West), there was still a sense that we need a mutual investment in order to try to make this relationship more predictable. The logic behind was that if you invested in interdependence, it would create restraint.
What we realize today, and what Germany underestimated, is that we failed to see that the Russian president no longer thinks (if he ever did) in the categories of economic rationality, but instead he was increasingly thinking in the categories of historical greatness and mythology. In this perspective, the potential economic or prosperity costs actually no longer matter to him. Therefore, one of the reasons why we lacked the imagination to see the invasion of February 24 coming was that we believed that it would be self-destructive for Russia to take such action – ergo, that Vladimir Putin would not do it.
Now we see that it was, indeed, self-destructive. Putin destroyed the Russian business model of supplying Europe with Russian fossil fuels. Still, he did it nonetheless, because he defines his actions in different terms and we have to adapt to that.
This means that, so far, we have neglected our defense, so now we need to invest more in it. We were over-reliant on Russian fossil fuel imports, so now we need to change that, diversify our energy supplies, and push even more for a quick expansion of renewable energy sources. We also have to rethink (and we are doing it right now) our support for Ukraine and our relationship with Russia. All of this needs to happen at the same time. This is what the Chancellor called the Zeitenwende – the turning point in German foreign policy.
On another note, let me refer to a rather controversial point that is being discussed also in Poland – namely, the logic behind the gas pipeline and the energy ties with Russia. We may find many people in the German political scene of today who will say that this was a mistake. Certainly, building Nord Stream 2 after the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbass was a mistake.
However, I would like to briefly point out that beyond the political reasoning of trying to create an interdependence that we hoped would stabilize their behavior, there was also another reason for adopting such an approach. Since the 1980s, there was an ever-stronger anti-nuclear sentiment in Germany. In 1999, there was a decision of the German government to phase out the nuclear reactors that were part of Germany’s energy mix. Then, within the society, which was increasingly climate-change conscious, the energy of the society was focused on getting out of coal. But if you get out of the nuclear and you want to get out of coal, which is bad for the climate, and you cannot build up renewables quick enough, then you need a bridge technology – in the German case it was supposed to be gas, which was available from Russia in large quantities.
This was part of the logic behind it. And because we did not see clearly enough the security policy challenges that came with it. Despite warnings from partners in CEE and elsewhere, we focused on pipeline gas, and not the LNG gas, which would have been available – but, of course, it was more expensive already in those days. It was a mistake, because we did not see it coming – and we have to correct it now on the fly. This requires major investments into floating liquified natural gas terminals that are currently being built in Germany in order to diversify our supplies.
Clearly, there is an energy component and a broader political one to our engagement with Russia. We have made our share of mistakes in misreading the Russian president’s intentions, in underestimating his willingness to be aggressive, to start a war and go on the offensive.
However, overall, I think we were not wrong to try to engage Russia and build a more stable relationship. We simply neglected some important precautions that we should have taken over the years – especially as Russia turned more authoritarian inwards, and more aggressive outwards.
LJ: Will the war change anything? Can Germany and Russia cooperate again in the future?
TB: This is a complex issue. Not just on a policy level, but also on the psychological level, the Russian question and the question of a proper relationship is probably the most divisive in the German-Polish discussion – and for a good reason, because our historical experiences could not be more different in that respect.
If the German dilemma is to be the largest country located in the center of Europe, and you have to come to terms with that situation, then the Polish dilemma is its geographical location between Russia on the one side, and Germany on the other – a historical experience that in the Polish collective memory goes back centuries.
Therefore, the issue that we are now discussing is much broader than the last 20 or even 40 years. For that particular reason it is important that we talk about it, and we try to make ourselves understood, because not everything in these last decades has happened with bad intention or complete blindness – there were reasons for doing it.
When we look at the energy policy, the pipeline deal with the Soviet Union started in the 1970s and 1980s. In those times, it was meant to be explicitly a business project, but with political implications and intentions – trying to engage Russia, and through this engagement to stabilize an otherwise a very difficult relationship. And it worked! As a result, the Soviet Union reliably supplied West Germany with fossil fuels.
From that moment on, intellectually, it was perhaps too easy to say, ‘we will apply the same model to Russia, as it emerged after the disintegration of the Soviet Union’. And we did not only continue this policy, but even expanded it. I think it was former Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who said publicly that one of the mistakes that Germany made was to mistake Russia for an extension of a Soviet Union – and to mistake this energy partnership for what we did during the Soviet-Union years.
The Soviet Union was, essentially, a status-quo power (at least in its later decades until its disintegration). Meanwhile, modern-day Russia is not a status-quo power – it is, essentially, a revisionist and aggressive power. Therefore, there is a lot of past dependency that can be seen in German actions. To put it mildly, it proved to be an overly optimistic assumption.
How much has changed? My personal assessment is this: I know that there is some criticism (or at least doubt) in Poland about the reality of the abovementioned turning point in German foreign policy – I can understand that. Do not take my word for it, but let us look at what is actually happening in energy policy, when there is no longer any fossil fuel coming from Russia to Germany; in defense policy, with the German government having committed to creating a special fund to re-supply the long-neglected German armed forces; in supplying NATO with additional forces on the eastern flank and deploying more troops to Lithuania and Slovakia, and more heavy weapons to Ukraine. The Ukrainian prime minister, who recently visited Berlin, said that the IRIS-T air defense system is one of the most efficient weapon system Ukraine received so far.
Russia policy is part of this turning point in German foreign policy. The Chancellor and the foreign minister have been very clear in stressing that there is no return to ‘business as usual’ with this Russian. There is no room for any reliable commitments that could be taken mutually with this Russian leadership, which has lied to the faces of our own leaders too many times.
It is, therefore, a rather fundamental change. Does this mean that we will never again talk to Russia? No, it does not. Russia is as it is – one of the biggest nuclear powers in the world. There are reasons to continue to talk with them. But signaling is not the same thing as trying to enter into a modus operandi of cooperation and expanding it.
Having said all this, every call or dialogue with Russia is viewed with suspicion – a suspicion that is rooted not only political, but also psychological, and it goes back a very long time. This is why it will not be an easy feat to rebuild that trust or to create the confidence (in Poland, the Baltic states, and elsewhere) that the German policy has truly and fundamentally changed in this regard.
However, I believe that this is what is happening – for instance, with the eight packages of sanctions that have been enacted so far. Not much is left of the German-Russian economic or political relationship. There is basically nothing left of the German-Russian energy relationship. The reason for that is because the Russian president has destroyed it – and it is not something you can simply reconstruct.
LJ: What is Germany’s German-Ukrainian policy? Is there a future for Ukraine in the European institutions, in the EU, and perhaps also in NATO? Is this perspective realistic?
TB: In my previous job, as a foreign-policy advisor to the federal president, we travelled to Ukraine twice (in 2019 and then last year) – we even visited Belarus in 2018. One of the things that my president always emphasized was that, as Germans, we need to place these countries on our German mental map, because they were not sufficiently present there. This is true both in terms of history (as these countries were the places of most terrible crimes when the German war and occupation happened), but also in the present day, as independent, sovereign states after the disintegration of the Soviet Union.
Of course, this is a process – you do not change people’s perceptions overnight. The exception is when something terrible – like a war – happens. So, whatever ambivalence there may have been in the German perspective on Ukraine – what is was, is, should be, or could be – a lot of these discussions have been simply put aside by Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine.
By doing so, by means of a valiant resistance of Ukrainians, and thanks to the way in which we try to support the Ukrainian struggle for freedom and independence, we are actually creating a situation in which a rather firm line will be drawn across our continent. Because Ukraine is clearly in our camp, whether we like it or not. This is likely what has informed the decision of the German government, and then that of the entire European Council, to grant Ukraine a candidate status for EU membership at the June summit.
Today, as we speak, my president is again in Ukraine voicing his support not just for Ukrainian struggle, but also for its aspirations. Currently, in Berlin, the Chancellor and the EU Commission president opened a conference on the reconstruction of Ukraine. Chancellor Scholz has made it very clear that we should look at reconstruction in the perspective of Ukraine becoming an EU member.
We live in a period of uncertainty. None of us knows when or how is this war going to end. Still, in all of this uncertainty, there is also a new reality that is taking shape. And that reality is that Ukraine will be a part of this space and of the European project of common rules, integration, and peaceful cooperation. This fact will also inform German policy.
So far, Germany has been slower in providing Ukraine with heavy weapons. The debate on the issue is a complicated one. For instance, in our country, there is a pacifist tradition of not exporting weapons to the conflict zones, among many other reasons. This debate was complicated with the new coalition government in Berlin, but by now, as we speak today, Germany is (aside from Poland) Ukraine’s biggest supporter in the European Union – not only financially, economically, and in terms of housing refugees, but also in terms of military support.
This process will continue. It will make Poland more central in Europe because the center of gravity of the EU will likely move further eastward. Also, all of us will learn a lot about Ukraine – including Germany. This is pretty much the consensus now – at least in the broad center of German political scene. And this is a good thing. Still, we have some catching up to do, but there is readiness to do so – not only on the political level, but also with a million Ukrainian refugees being currently sheltered and housed in Germany.
LJ: What would be the correct response of the European Union to stop the support of the public opinion for Ukraine from withering?
TB: Over the years, Vladimir Putin became a victim of his own propaganda. He had two basic lines: the first one assumes that Ukraine was just a house of cards that quickly collapsed; secondly, that the decadent West would simply cry foul for a day and then return to its consumption patterns. Eventually, he himself started to believe his own propaganda, which led him to this terrible miscalculation.
However, Putin was wrong in both accounts. The Ukrainians have surprised with their resistance, courage, and bravery not only us, but also the Russians. Thanks to that there is now a real perspective that they could recapture occupied territories. In terms of his view on Europe, Putin also miscalculated.
The point here is that liberal democracies do not like to fight. They do not want to waste their energy and the lives of their citizens on foreign entanglements. They prefer to focus on their own matters and on expanding prosperity for all. But if you poke them for too long, you actually mobilize them. I think that is what Putin has done. He has crossed the line, which was absolutely unacceptable for all of us. We now understand that we have to stop him – and we must do it now. Otherwise, he will simply continue in his aggressive policies.
This is the reason why there is no going back – this is the broad consensus. When we take a look at the specifics, because of some of the mistakes that we made in the past – not only in Germany, as many other European countries imported Russian fossil fuels, Poland included, to the tune of billions of zlotys every year – we all have to reorient our energy sector. We are all struggling with energy prices because we are buying on the world market that has only so much it can offer – and if demand is higher, the prices go up.
There seem to be two overriding goals that are in conflict, and they need to be reconciled at the European level. First, we all struggle with electricity and energy prices that are far too high. This affects consumers, businesses, and industries. So, we need to bring down the energy prices and we must do it fast. However, at the same time, we need to secure sufficient supplies for the winter and for next year, while we know that the supply is scarce if we exclude Russian supplies.
For instance, if we put a cap on the gas prices, we can alleviate the burden for consumers and industry, but if the result of such an action is that the suppliers say, ‘Oh, if you do not wish to pay that amount of money for our supplies, then we will ship our energy elsewhere!’, then you harm yourself as you are endangering the security of supply. If we design a price cap in such a way so that it becomes an incentive to save energy and gas, we will also make a mistake, because we also need to save a significant amount of energy and gas use during this winter and in the future in order to make things work.
All of these difference viewpoints and competing goals need to be integrated. This is a painful process of political compromise that has happened at the European Council meeting in mid-October and energy ministers are now working on it. Some finger-pointing is also happening. Germany is not the only country that tries to alleviate some of the burden and ease the pressure by subsidizing energy cost at home, in its own economy. Other countries do that as well. There are many different national responses. I sincerely hope that we can enlarge them to formulate a proper, all-European response to it.
We went through that experience during the COVID-19 pandemic, 2.5 years ago. Initially, all the responses were national, what created something that a diplomat would call ‘a sub-optimal solution’, which led to a lot of friction between member states. We find ourselves in a somewhat similar situation right now. Every country is struggling to adapt to this crisis situation. However, we would all be better off if we could find a joint European solution which would combine both of the goals that I have mentioned – bringing down the energy and electricity prices paired with securing sufficient supply for the winter.
LJ: Let us turn to German domestic politics. What happened to the idea of going nuclear in Germany?
TB: Since December 2021, for almost a year now, Germany has had a complex, three-party government. It is the first time ever that we have three different political programs that need to be integrated. After this government was formed, they tried and negotiated an extensive coalition agreement that was focused on economic and ecological transformation. Only two months later, the war breaks out and shakes some of the most fundamental assumptions and tenets of German foreign policy, defense policy, and energy policy.
It is quite a task. We can see how leaders of all the parties and the general public are trying to keep up with the pace of change and necessary but difficult decisions that need to be taken. This seems to be true for all three governing parties (the Greens, the Social Democrats, and the Liberals).
The Social Democrats added a difficulty to this process because they own some of the decisions of the last 20 years in government. But we also have a conservative opposition which under Angela Merkel was responsible for the last 16 years for many of the policies that we need to revisit and redirect. Therefore, all these parties have had a difficult task of reformulating and redesigning some of the policies and mobilizing public support for a new direction. This is an enormous challenge not only in terms of decision-making, but also public communication.
It is also part of my own biography. When I was 24 and the Berlin Wall fell, I did not see it coming. Over the following decades, Germany somehow thought (or even knew) that history was going our way. We were witnessing a grand convergence of the entire world according to the German, or the European, model of liberal democracy and social market economy. It is a pleasant idea, but we were slow to realize that this may have just been a brief moment and not exactly a course of history. We failed to adapt in time to a much harsher reality of autocratic systems or the continuing relevance of military power (including nuclear weapons).
When it comes to nuclear, I was not one of those youth who, in the 1980s, was demonstrating against nuclear refueling plants and nuclear reactors being built. However, the very emotional and intense debate of those days actually was the reason that brought me to study international relations on my way to becoming a diplomat. I was essentially studying Cold War to find a position of my own in the struggles of that decade.
When we think about the deeper sources of the German anti-nuclear sentiment, we have to go back to the emergence of the Greens in the early 1980s and the collective experience of Chernobyl in April 1986, because we will not understand neither the decision to exit from the nuclear energy in 1999, nor the very strong public and political reaction to the catastrophe of Fukushima in March 2011 if we do not have this background of the deeper roots of history of this issue in Germany.
Even though there have been different opinions on the safety or the benefits of nuclear energy between the political parties in Germany, there has not been a new nuclear power plant built in our country for decades. I, personally, find it not easy to imagine any regional prime minister who would go out publicly and say, ‘In my state, there is a place where we could build such a new nuclear power plant’. I was recently in Gdansk, where I also talked about the Polish plans to build a nuclear reactor. The region of Pomerania is one of the areas the government is looking at. Poles, however, have a different sensibility toward the issue, so there is not a lot of resistance. Meanwhile, in Germany, there is a very different level of resistance.
Having said all this, there is now a debate in Germany about the issue of nuclear energy. Three reactor are still operating, but we are supposed to go off the net. In the midst of the energy crisis that we will face this winter they will likely run a little longer to back up the German electricity supplies.
I believe it is a reasonable decision. But I also think that you do not switch entry or exit from such a complex technology just like this. It was based on a decades-long process that has much deeper roots. I was not a part of this movement at the beginning, but I find it difficult to believe that Germany would fundamentally revisit the question of nuclear energy any time soon. In my view, it is far more likely that it is actually the program of the current government coalition to use the current crisis to accelerate the expansion of investment in building renewable sources of energy, which would not only reduce the dependence on foreign supplies, but which would also reduce the risk, and make the greatest possible contribution to averting climate change.
LJ: Should we await a new global order in the future? How might it look like?
TB: The notion of the end of history was particularly popular in Germany because we felt that after 1989 we were finally on the right side of history after being on the wrong side at least twice in the past century. There was something very appealing about it.
There was also one other important aspect that is often underestimated – namely, for the country like Germany, which was so burned by the experience of a charismatic leader (who called himself Führer at the time, which led to the word itself being contaminated), we have hardly a way to talk about leadership in German because of this historical experience, the notion that history would now somehow flow in a pre-determined direction and all a government has to do is basically to administer the inevitable convergence on liberal democracy and market economy was very tempting. You were not exposed to the risks that we see, for example, now – with President Putin and Russia or President Xi Jinping and China, who concentrate all power in one hand, with no accountability, where any mistake they make is a big mistake, and where any decision that they make is a decision that falls back heavily on the entire population.
This is why we loved to believe in the end of history and that the fall of the Wall somehow solved all of our problems. Of course, it did not. If you listened to the Indians or other nations, they could have told you long ago that 1989 was a happy moment for Germany but it was actually not as consequential in other parts of the world. So, now, we are moving to something new. Do I know what is it going to be? No, I do not. But I think that the notion of a gradual convergence is gone.
We clearly see a return of a great power rivalry, a reassessment of interdependence, which we view now much more through a security lens. Suddenly, interdependence becomes vulnerability, and we want to build more resilience. As a result, we will revisit our various policy fields in order to, possibly, pay a security premium to create more resilience in our system.
It will be a challenge to stay open. The pendulum will swing back from globalization, but it should not swing too far, because, in the end, trade, investment, interaction, open societies and economies are what and who we are, and what made our prosperity. We should not lose the sight of that. However, we also need to relearn some of the difficult lessons of hard power and invest in deterrents – including nuclear deterrents, which we almost forgot about in the last 30 years.
We have to do all that in a situation where we are also faced with planetary challenges. We are just coming out of a global pandemic, but we are still in the midst of a climate change. So, the question is how do we organize a minimum of cooperation across the globe that is otherwise quite fractured and locked in long-term confrontation and struggle? We should not lose sight of that minimum cooperation, which we will need to address some of the big challenges of the Anthropocene.
Nonetheless, I tend to be optimistic. I would argue that the future will actually be much more open, which us, Germans, would love to believe after 1989. There are reasons to be optimistic indeed. What we see now in Ukraine and elsewhere around the globe (for example, in Iran) is that people do not relinquish the ideas of dignity and personal freedom voluntarily. This is the strongest driving force that is innate in human beings.
This is my intellectual connection to liberalism, and I deeply believe that there are plenty of lessons in history that show us that. These are the ideas that all autocracies should be worried about and what we should be hopeful for. Even though these observations of mine may say little about the geopolitics of the next one, two or five years, it says a lot about the longer arch of history.
The podcast was recorded on October 25, 2022.
This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.