A silly dispute over a carnival float shows how bad Germany’s relationship with Poland has become

To those not following European politics, exactly what the picture above depicts may be a little unclear. Let us spell it out. The figure in the uniform is Jaroslaw Kaczynski, former prime minister of Poland and current leader of the Law and Justice (PiS) party. Kneeling before him on the ground is a figure of a bleeding woman. She’s labeled “Poland.”

The symbolism isn’t subtle. Kaczynski is being shown as a jack-booted dictator, grinding the Polish people under his heel. This was just one of a number of not-so-subtle political messages carried by floats at the Duesseldorf Carnival on Monday (Trump, of course, was another target).

In the end, the float was never actually part of the parade — the event was called off due to a severe weather warning. But still, this float touched a nerve.

The backlash from Poland was swift. On Tuesday, Poland’s foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski demanded to know “what is the aim of such antic,” adding that the float showed “a disrespect toward Poles and Polish politicians.” But the response from German officials was far from apologetic. There would be no reprimand for those who created the float, Steffen Seibert, a spokesman for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government, said Wednesday. “We have freedom of expression and freedom of art in Germany,” Seibert told reporters. “That can be less than comfortable for those who are artistically depicted; nevertheless, freedom of expression and freedom of art are still valid here.”

The timing of this spat isn’t great. On Friday, Poland’s new prime minister, Beata Szydlo, will be in Germany for bilateral talks with Merkel. Yet tension over the float is proof of a wider point: There’s a big problem right now in relations between Germany and Poland.
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The problem was sparked when the right-wing PiS party took power in October after running on a platform of right-wing populism, euroskepticism and a hard stance on Europe’s refugee crisis. In their short time in office, the PiS have already undertaken a number of moves that have led European observers to worry about the risk of authoritarianism in the country, with the government taking on the country’s constitutional courts, civil service and public broadcasters. The European Union has fired back with an unprecedented inquiry into whether the nation was breaching the organization’s democratic standards — a decision that could lead to sanctions on Poland’s powers in the European Union.

The war of words has sometimes been fierce: European Parliament President Martin Schulz suggested that the election of PiS represents “a dangerous Putinization of European politics” and that the recent developments in Poland had “the characteristics of a coup.” Schulz is German, which is fitting: Germany, perhaps the most powerful nation in Europe and Poland’s neighbor, has emerged as a focal point for Warsaw’s ire. To get a sense of the mood, look across the Polish press: Last month, one Polish magazine published a front-page image that showed Merkel, Schulz and other European leaders dressed in Nazi uniforms. “These people want to control Poland again,” went the headline.

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