Merkel to visit euroskeptic Poland in struggle to save EU

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Warsaw on Tuesday for talks with Poland's top leaders, taking efforts to save the European Union to a country that is keen to keep as much national power as possible and fears being marginalized in a "two-speed Europe."

Her trip is "one of the most important visits in Polish-German relations since 2004," when Poland joined the EU, said Sebastian Plociennik, an expert at the Polish Institute of International Affairs.

The 28-nation bloc is struggling for a way forward after Britain's vote to leave.

"This year, 2017, will be very important for European integration and the decisions made this year will set the path for the EU's future," Plociennik said.

Poland's populist ruling party, Law and Justice, is often described as euroskeptic, but unlike right-wing populists in France and elsewhere, it does not advocate leaving the EU.

EU membership remains hugely popular in Poland, whose citizens have benefited enormously from development funds and the freedom to work elsewhere in the bloc.

However, Law and Justice fears that Poland's national identity has been eroded by liberal Western values and it also preserve as much power for Europe's national parliaments as possible. Many criticize what they see as the EU's distant and inefficient bureaucracy. Poland is also not eager to join the 19-nation eurozone anytime soon.

But Polish officials are also concerned that the EU could react to Britain's decision to leave by developing a more deeply integrated core made of up Germany, France and the Benelux nations, which could then dictate financial rules to other EU countries.

Those fears of becoming marginalized have flared as Merkel speaks of a "multi-speed" Europe.

"We have a European of different speeds — every time that is said, it awakens the impression that this is something new, but my opinion is that it is nothing new," Merkel said Monday.

But Poland has also marginalized itself under its current government by taking an obstructionist position on climate change, refusing to accept Muslim refugees and refusing to give up its heavy reliance on coal. It is also in a standoff with Brussels for eroding the independence of Poland's constitutional court.

Merkel is to meet with Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, President Andrzej Duda and Law and Justice chairman Jaroslaw Kaczynski, as well as opposition leaders and representatives of the ethnic German minority in Poland.

The deputy foreign minister of Poland, Konrad Szymanski, said the re-election of Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister, as head of the European Council, might come up in the talks. Tusk had Merkel's backing for his first term and hopes to serve another term when his ends in May.

Kaczynski, a rival of Tusk, has indicated he won't support Tusk for another EU term. But Plociennik says the matter is still open because there has been no conclusive decision from the Polish government.

Jedrzej Bielecki of the Rzeczpospolita daily urged Kaczynski to work with Merkel "to protect the fundamental rights of our country."

"If the European Union falls apart or becomes a hollow structure, hardly anyone will lose as much as Poland. Kaczynski must understand this," Bielecki wrote Monday.


Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed to this report.