Back to basics – a new start for the Weimar Triangle

Abstract

The chief initial task of the Weimar Triangle – facilitating Poland’s reintegration into European political structures – has been achieved. The Triangle, however, has not otherwise taken on a prominent role in the foreign policy agendas of Poland, Germany and France throughout its 30-year tenure. And prospects for the potential revival of the format remain dim, the recent political divergence of the three countries rendering it difficult to broker consensus on concrete policy measures. The Triangle, nonetheless, has acquired a beneficial societal component with numerous notable cultural and artistic initiatives that can and should be expanded upon.

Introduction

The Weimar Triangle is like a magical fern flower which, according to Baltic mythology, blooms a sole day on the eve of the summer solstice. The Triangle, underscoring this point, has generally been symbolic, ephemeral at best, rather than delivering tangible impacts, though it has left a lasting imprint on foreign policy wonks. Despite the fact that ferns do not yield flowers, certain ferns appear in flower-like clusters, explaining why they feature prominently in ancient myths and ballads. In the same manner, the Weimar Triangle, even if it has failed to transpire into a permanent mechanism of political coordination, has a more durable raison d’être: bringing societies together.

A historic mission

Thirty years ago, the rationale for the Weimar Triangle was unmistakable and compelling. At that time, continental geopolitical plates were shifting, leaving the rubble of the Soviet Union behind in their wake. By the early 1990s, France and Germany had recorded decades of enormous success in moving past their prior tumultuous relations through the coming together of politicians, intellectual elites and ordinary people. This Franco-German cooperation was instrumental in hastening European integration including through the establishment of a single market and the development of EU competencies in areas like foreign policy and home affairs. These developments have been simultaneously indispensable and insufficient, steering France and Germany to increasingly search for new partners across the continent.

Poland, for its part, as the demographically and politically heftiest country in Central and Eastern Europe, meanwhile, needed guidance in its pursuit of integration with Western institutions. It was indeed clear that, sooner or later, Poland and other post-communist countries would accede to NATO and the European Community (later renamed the European Union). By establishing informal and ad hoc cooperation, rather than a structured approach, the three countries conveyed a powerful signal: the new post-Cold War Europe was not designed to see wealthier countries dominate their poor post-communist cousins. Instead, the emerging order was to be inclusive, enabling countries to harmoniously incorporate divergent views, traditions and backgrounds. The Weimar Triangle, furthermore, represented, for France, an opportunity to forge meaningful relations with Central Europe, a task that had often been neglected since the times of President Charles de Gaulle.

Notwithstanding any intentions, Poland, as a young democracy and aspiring member of NATO and the EU, always occupied a junior position in this relationship. The Weimar Triangle, furthermore, was more important to Warsaw than it was to Berlin or Paris. Poland, nevertheless, carried political weight, undergirded by its recent struggle against communism, the significance of Polish-German reconciliation and Warsaw’s constructive role in Central Europe. This latter status is epitomized in the country’s influential role in the Visegrád Four (V4), a grouping also encompassing the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary – especially in the first two decades of the 21st century. The V4’s swift success provided living proof of Poland’s leverage in the region and lent support to the argument that Poland could punch above its seeming political weight in the Triangle.

Against this backdrop, the Weimar Triangle has morphed into an ephemeral entity during its 30-year tenure, with summits organized according to need. The foreign ministers of the three countries have, as of present, met 25 times – mostly in the 1990s and 2000s – and the heads of state and government nine times, the last meeting of which dates back to 2013. Some of the ad hoc schemes have proven useful including an initiative undertaken by the then three foreign ministers, Laurent Fabius, Radosław Sikorski and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, in 2014, to broker peace between Maidan protesters and Ukrainian President Yanukovych. The most recent ministerial meeting took place last October between foreign ministers, reviving speculation concerning whether this format might be intensified.

Developments at the level of culture, arts, historical research and civic engagement have had a lasting (even if not visible to the naked eye) effect on societies. Regional-level triangle cooperation, for example, was established in 2001 between the Polish voivodeship of Silesia, the French region of Nord Pas-de-Calais (later renamed Hauts de France) and the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia. Annually organized “youth summits” represent but one tangible fruit produced from this cooperation. Another output, though it is now struggling to retain its relevance, concerns an annual award, named after Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, granted to individuals and organisations who have contributed to Weimar Triangle cooperation. Progress in this area, admittedly, has often been uneven, erratic and dependent on the moods of political leaders and the availability of funds.

Increasingly divergent views and paths ahead

The immediate prospects for the Weimar Triangle as a prime political platform do not bode well. The Triangle has already served its nominal purpose: Poland is a mature member of European forums and neither requires nor asks for tutelage. Could the Triangle morph into a club of political cooperation? Probably not. The EU is considerably more diverse and pluralist than it was in the early 1990s. Clubs of big countries, no matter how informal, will not be perceived favourably by smaller members of the community. The gravity centre of Europe, moreover, has shifted since the 1990s, moving away from France and Germany as the two unofficial leaders of the continent to more diverse groups including Spain and the Scandinavian and Benelux countries. EU institutions, particularly the Commission and the Parliament, are increasingly actors in their own right. Polish, German and French diplomats, side by side with their counterparts from other countries, meet daily in myriad forums in a unified Europe – from Coreper to the North Atlantic Council.

More notably, the political affinity necessary to advance this cooperation is lacking. Poland, in fact, finds itself at the opposing end of current integration initiatives advanced by Germany and France. As a more culturally conservative country, Poland has seen issues of women’s rights and abortion recently come to the fore of public debates, exposing numerous ideological divisions within society. The so-called “LGBT-free” zones established by local governments in Poland only further stirred controversy in France and Germany. On this point, French Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Clément Beaune publicly asserted, in March 2021, that his request to visit one of the “LGBT-free” zones in southern Poland had been spurned, underlining worsening relations between Paris and Warsaw. Anti-German overtones, moreover, have been present in some of the manoeuvres and proclamations of the Polish political elite. President Andrzej Duda, for example, responding to unfavourable criticism in Die Welt, among other news outlets proclaimed on the campaign trail in July last year that “he rejects the idea of Germans selecting Poland’s president.”

The political and policy differences are indeed vast. Poland is sceptical of the need for action on climate change and has eschewed the euro, with Warsaw expressing no interest in joining the common currency any time soon. The country is also not a proponent of fiscal integration and is wary of industrial policy favouring European champions, single market regulations and immigration. On foreign policy, Poland is more hawkish on Russia than Germany and France and appears uninterested in taking an active role in co-shaping relations with the Middle East and North Africa. The V4 is flailing, the Czech Republic and Slovakia seeking to differentiate themselves from Poland and Hungary’s European “illiberal revolution”. These issues, amalgamated, leave Poland a political outlier and a less than the desired partner as part of ad-hoc European coalitions.

All told, the three-country government-level cooperation generally lacks a unifying narrative and shared policies that could give the framework substance. The EU enlargement agenda, which could help fill this void, has stagnated. The Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), for its part, is mired in a rather bureaucratic process. And consensus eludes the bloc on developing a front towards Russia. Meanwhile, bolder items, including re-engagement with the US under the Biden administration and reform of the multilateral system, will require a far more diverse crowd of stakeholders than the three countries can provide.

Back to the basics

The Weimar Triangle can thrive but only if political and ideological alignment is found between the three countries, currently far from the case. If the political winds shift, however, political cooperation could be revived.

This cooperation, in fact, still holds merit. Over the short term, the best path forward will depend on focusing on the grassroots integration of the three societies, including an emphasis on arts, culture and history. While the German and French societies are already interwoven (following a seventy-year process), the ties between, say, young Poles and their Western counterparts are not yet fully developed. Linguistic, cultural and economic chasms rather remain and it will take considerably longer than thirty years to bridge them. Germany and France are not in a position to assist Poland in resolving its deep internal socio-political fissures. It is, consequently, of utmost importance now to get back to the basics and recover the spirit of the initiatives of the early 1990s. This entails learning to cherish democracy, rule of law and civic engagement, empowering communities, fostering ties between local governments and civil society and establishing people-to-people contacts.

The Weimar Triangle is, like the fern flower, a somewhat illusory and elusive concept. At the same time, the need for intense cooperation between the three countries is beyond dispute, regardless of the name it goes by. A logical necessity, this partnership has, in many ways, already wielded tangible effects through numerous formats with and without other partners.

This paper was originally published on the Genshagen Foundation website.