A well-timed apology builds trust
Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin was only six years old in 1991. That year, I heard an official in Helsinki lament Estonia’s return to independence. Devastated by communist mismanagement, it would inevitably be unstable, poor and plagued by crime: a disaster for Finland. He was not alone. For thirty years Finnish policy makers have patronized and ignored their prosperous neighbors to the south. In 2008, Tarja Halonen, then President of Finland, dismissed Estonia’s aggressiveness towards Russia because of “post-Soviet traumatic stress”.
Last month, Ms Marin apologized for the mistakes of her predecessors.
“I honestly want to admit that over the past decades we could have listened more carefully to our friends in the Baltic countries on issues related to our common security and to Russia,” she said at the annual meeting of the senior diplomats of his country.
Perhaps she could also talk to her German counterpart, Olaf Scholz. The mistakes made by his country over the past thirty years pale in comparison to those of Germany. Finland has sought energy independence from Russia, while Germany has catastrophically increased its reliance on Russian gas, building not just one but two pipelines across the Baltic Sea. Militarily, Finland has never lowered its guard. Germany is a notorious free-rider when it comes to defence. Worse still, German politicians hampered the security of others, slowing down decision-making on NATO enlargement and on contingency plans to defend the alliance’s eastern members against Russia. Holiness masked this odious combination of self-interest and naivety.
Yet when it comes to other errors, “Vergangenheitsbewältigung– coming to terms with the past – is embedded in German public discourse. Scholz’s powerful and thought-provoking speech on the future of Europe, delivered in Prague last week, said the murderous Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia “still hurts and shames us”. He acknowledged that the West is often unaware of the post-war injustice inflicted on Eastern and Central European countries. Liberation from the Nazis was the precursor to a new totalitarian regime, this time in Soviet hands.
The Chancellor’s speech highlighted, albeit implicitly, a huge shift in German thinking. His country opposed the EU membership of poor countries with weak institutions, citing concerns about costs, crime and migration. Now Scholz explicitly supports expansion to the Western Balkans, Moldova, Ukraine and possibly even Georgia. This would mean an EU with up to 36 members. He placed particular emphasis on supply chain resilience. This from the leader of a country who for decades believed that increased trade and investment with totalitarian countries would make them friendlier.
These excellent arguments would have been more credible had they been accompanied by some recognition that Germany, until recently, was part of the problem, not part of the solution.
This is not only a moral question but a practical question. Scholz now shows a commendable appetite for bold, global thinking. For example, he supported Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a European political community. This will include non-EU members: both those waiting to enter and the post-Brexit UK. But these proposals will have to overcome the trust deficit in the eastern half of the continent created by years of short-sighted, self-serving decisions and ill-chosen language. Polish support will be vital. But policy makers in Warsaw are not impressed by Berlin’s fine words. The Polish government has just unveiled a 1.3 trillion euro compensation claim for war damage (German contrition for Nazi crimes does not go that far: officials in Berlin say the issue of compensation is “closed”).
Chancellor Willy Brandt’s spontaneous genuflexion in 1970 at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Memorial paved the way for a partial reconciliation with Communist-ruled Poland. No one expects that from Scholz. But the new Ostpolitik, like its predecessor, needs openness and honesty about the past to succeed.