Cooperation between France, Germany and Poland is looking more illusory than ever before
The Weimar Triangle is in bad shape these days. It feels like the cooperation between France, Germany and Poland should be moved to intensive care, but the triangle hasn’t even seen a doctor yet. The fact is that all three corners of the triangle are letting each other down. Germany, preoccupied by the magnitude of the refugee crisis, is forced to act under enormous pressure with little room for compromise or lead-time, and against strong opposition among EU governments. France appears to be paralysed by the 2017 presidential elections and its attempts at structural reform economic growth, while both traditional political camps are frightened by the seemingly unstoppable rise of the Front National. Further east, Poland’s new national-conservative government has already demonstrated that the country’s status as an EU member will no longer be considered a central commitment or principle.
This trilateral cooperation group, created 25 years ago by then Foreign Ministers Hans-Dietrich Genscher, Roland Dumas and Krzysztof Skubiszewski, was meant to symbolise the depth of reconciliation between Germany and Poland, and to reassure the latter of its central role in the “new Europe”. It was also meant to act as an early indicator of the commitment made by France and Germany to the more eastern European Union that was to come. For most of the past 25 years, the triangle has been more of a symbolic structure than anything carrying real power. Despite its ostensible lack of direct power, the triangle has played an important role in extending Franco-German bilateralism to Poland, and was among the most visible expressions of the enlargement prospect.
However, moments of joint action and common leadership have been rare. One such occasion was the decision taken in 2011 to form a “Weimar battle group” headquartered outside Paris, led by Poland, and built around a core of Polish forces with support from Germany and France. This step was just one in a variety of cooperation schemes that Poland has engaged in as part of its membership of the EU and NATO. Other steps towards closer cooperation between Polish and German armed forces have been taken such as the Multinational Corps Northeast, headquartered in Szczecin and founded in 1999 by Poland, Germany, and Denmark. More recently, Germany and Poland announced that they would place an army battalion under the command of each other. While all of this may sound positive on paper, when taking a wider and comparative view, it is apparent that Polish cooperation with Germany lags a little when compared with Germany’s cooperation with other EU member states. For example, the integration of the Dutch defence forces with the German Bundeswehr runs much deeper than anything Poland is engaged in, even though Polish-German defence cooperation is of the higher strategic relevance. The Netherlands operates most of its army in joint structures with Germany, and just recently, both agreed to integrate the German naval battalion (special forces for sea-land operations) fully into the Dutch navy.
In the realm of politics, the asymmetries among the Weimar partners are even more profound, and well summed up in Kai-Olaf Lang and Daniela Schwarzer’s analysis on the occasion of grouping’s the 20th anniversary. The parties were split over the Iraq war and proved totally dysfunctional when it came to the controversies over the Lisbon Treaty, notably on the issue of the weighting of votes in the Council. When the Council is split on a decision, Germany and Poland often find themselves on opposite sides of the table. While Berlin and Paris usually stick together, Warsaw often ends up disagreeing with them. In spite of the much improved bilateral relationship between Germany and Poland because of the Polish EU presidency, occasions for a deeper consensus between the two over difficult issues have been few and far between. Despite best intentions, during the unrest in Maidan Square Hollande and Merkel took the lead while Poland’s role faded into the background.
Contrary to definition, the Weimar Triangle has essentially been a two-way affair, centred on Germany. The weakest link has been, and continues to be, the Franco-Polish relationship. Early in the transformation towards democracy and a market economy, Polish hopes for a deeper engagement with France ran high, not only because France had secured Poland’s role in its European neighbourhood, but also because of a shared intellectual affinity. Polish “freedom thinkers” felt attached to the French tradition of liberty and its revolutionary heritage. In France, Weimar has always been seen as a guarantor of French interests or concerns vis-à-vis Germany. The goal of successive presidents and foreign ministers has been to prevent the development of any forms of competing bilateralism that could downgrade the Franco-German alliance. However, a genuine interest in deeper relations with Poland or a transformation of the bilateral motor into a three-cylinder engine has never developed in Paris.
This is where the Weimar Triangle stands in early 2016: In Paris, the new Polish government is seen through the prism of the domestic troubles with Marine Le Pen’s Front National. Consequently, disinterest in the trilateral format is deepening as political interests diverge. In Berlin, the German government sees its EU wings truncated at a time when its leverage in EU affairs is put to the greatest test yet. Once labelled as the “new France” for Germany in Europe, the Polish fever in Berlin has now gone. Unsurprisingly, it turns out that a two-pronged triangle doesn’t make any sense, and the double bilateralism with Paris and Warsaw lacks the reliability to qualify as a credible leadership tool. In Warsaw, the pictures have been rearranged. In a major speech to the Polish Sejm on 29 January 2016, Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski named the the United Kingdom as Poland’s most like-minded partner on European affairs and security. Germany, France and the Weimar Triangle did not feature prominently at all.
For the time being, the Weimar Triangle is back to “sleeping beauty” status. The elections in Germany and France in 2017 might provide the kiss of life the relationship needs, but this, too, seems unlikely. The weakness of the Triangle adds to the political fragmentation that the EU is currently suffering from. Symbolic solidarity and cooperation is not enough in the current crises. Appeals for further cohesion, like that launched by the six founding member states, may serve to window dress the situation, but cannot provide the practical solutions needed.
Over its 25 year history, the Weimar Triangle has failed to function as a strong and interdependent grouping that is capable of withstanding national political cycles and maintaining a steady level of intent among the political classes of the three countries. It seems clear that these three different countries still want three rather different things from the Triangle. Weimar is the city where both Goethe and Schiller, titans of German poetry, spent parts of their life; it is the capital in a kingdom of fiction. In this sense, the Weimar Triangle bears a proper name.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.
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