Saying ‘Sorry’

(This article first appeared in The Times of London)

By Edward Lucas

A well-timed apology builds trust

Finland’s prime minister Sanna Marin was just six in 1991. In that year I listened to an official in Helsinki lamenting Estonia’s return to independence. Devastated by communist misrule, it would inevitably be unstable, poor and crime-ridden: a catastrophe for Finland. He was not alone. For the thirty years, Finnish decision-makers patronised and ignored their thriving southern neighbours. In 2008, Tarja Halonen, then Finland’s president, dismissed Estonia’s hawkishness towards Russia as the result of “post-Soviet traumatic stress”.

Last month Ms Marin apologised for her predecessors’ mistakes.

“I honestly want to admit that, over the past decades, we could have listened to our friends in the Baltics more closely along the way in questions related to our common security and Russia,” she told the annual meeting of her country’s senior diplomats.

Perhaps she could also have a word with her German counterpart, Olaf Scholz. Her country’s mistakes over the past thirty years are mild in comparison with Germany’s. Finland pursued energy independence from Russia, whereas Germany catastrophically increased its dependence on Russian gas, building not just one but two pipelines across the Baltic Sea. Militarily, Finland never dropped its guard. Germany is a notorious free-rider on defense. Worse, German politicians hampered the security of others, slowing down decision-making about NATO enlargement, and about contingency plans to defend the alliance’s eastern members from Russia. Sanctimony cloaked this odious combination of self-interest and naïveté.

Yet when it comes to other mistakes, “Vergangenheitsbewältigung” – coming to terms with the past — is entrenched in Germany’s public discourse. Scholz’s powerful and thought-provoking speech about the future of Europe, given in Prague last week, said the murderous Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia still “pains and shames us”. He acknowledged that the West often overlooked the post-war injustice inflicted on the countries of eastern and central Europe. Liberation from the Nazis was the precursor to further totalitarian rule, this time at Soviet hands.

The chancellor’s speech highlighted, though only implicitly, a huge shift in German thinking. His country used to oppose EU membership for poor countries with weak institutions, citing worries about cost, crime and migration. Now Scholz explicitly supports expansion to the Western Balkans, Moldova, Ukraine and perhaps even Georgia. That would mean an EU of up to 36 members. He laid particular emphasis on supply chain resilience. This from the leader of a country that for decades believed that greater trade and investment with totalitarian countries would make them friendlier.

These excellent points would have been more credible had they been accompanied by some recognition that Germany until recently has been part of the problem, not the solution.

This is not just a moral issue but a practical one. Scholz is now showing a commendable appetite for bold, big-picture thinking. He endorsed, for example, Emmanuel Macron’s proposal for a European Political Community. This will include non-EU members: both those waiting to get in, and the post-Brexit United Kingdom. But these proposals will have to overcome the trust deficit in the eastern half of the continent created by years of short-sighted, self-centred decisions and ill-chosen language. Polish support will be vital. But decision-makers in Warsaw are unimpressed by nice words from Berlin. The Polish government has just unveiled a €1.3 trillion compensation claim for wartime damage (German contrition for Nazi crimes does not stretch that far: officials in Berlin say the compensation question is “closed’).

Chancellor Willy Brandt’s spontaneous genuflection in 1970 at the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising memorial paved the way for partial reconciliation with communist-ruled Poland. Nobody is expecting that from Scholz. But the new Ostpolitik, like its predecessor, needs openness and honesty about the past to succeed.