Time for the Weimar Triangle to Lead on European Security

By Noah DeMichele | YPFP Rising Expert for Europe | May 3, 2023

France, Germany, and Poland should coordinate to set the agenda on European security. Since the outbreak of Russia’s war in Ukraine, security has rightfully moved to the top of European policy considerations. Europe has mobilized to support Ukraine’s defense while many states have begun to reconsider their foreign policy orientation and revamp their national security strategy through increased defense spending and by rethinking their relationship with Russia. While support for Ukraine remains paramount, European Union countries are beginning to review their relations with China, particularly as it concerns balancing economic and security policy. France, Germany, and Poland are central to these discussions.

These three states comprise the Weimar Triangle, a forum designed to foster collaboration and reach consensus on intractable issues. The dual challenges of sustaining support for Ukraine and managing rising tensions between the West and China ensure that European security will remain a priority issue for Paris, Berlin, and Warsaw. To face these challenges with unity and help set the security agenda in Europe, the Weimar Triangle should be revitalized with emphasis and priority given to addressing Europe’s two most pressing geopolitical concerns, Russia and China.

The Right Time to Revitalize the Weimar Triangle

Revitalizing the Weimar Triangle should be an easy sell for all three states — despite the at-times rocky bilateral relations between each of them. Germany’s Zeitenwende, a turning point in foreign policy,has brought expectations that Berlin will take on a stronger leadership role in matters of European security. In an August 2022 speech to the New School in New York, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock remarked that “it is for my country within the European Union to help lead the way.” Even so, Berlin remains hesitant to lead on security without partners, or to “go it alone,” as Chancellor Olaf Scholz puts it. Leading through coordination with France and Poland in the Weimar forum provides Germany with the partners it seeks in European security leadership.

France has long sought for Europe to forge its own sovereignty in defense matters and would likely welcome a push to make the Weimar Triangle more relevant. President Macron has sparked the debate he seeks with his renewed push for European strategic autonomy, a long-standing ambition of his to increase European defense capabilities and reduce strategic reliance on the United States. While Macron’s push to reduce Europe’s reliance on the United States is unlikely to make significant progress anytime soon, any improvement in that direction will require coordination with Germany and Poland.

Poland, for its part, wants a greater say in European security discussions. Warsaw has been robust in its support of Ukraine and has often put pressure on Berlin and Paris to go further. As recently as April 2023, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki argued that Germany and France have not made “serious international moves” and need to do more to support Ukraine. The fact remains, however, that major action in European policy is most often driven by the Franco-German engine. Coordinating more closely with Paris and Berlin in the Weimar Triangle is Warsaw’s best option to influence European security decision making.

Sustaining Support for Ukraine

As Russia’s war against Ukraine continues, increased coordination of the Weimar Triangle can help ensure Europe continues to provide support for Ukraine’s defense. Neither side has had significant gains since Ukraine retook the city of Kherson in a major offensive in November 2022, while Russian President Vladimir Putin seems to be embracing the waiting game, hoping that Western support for Ukraine will wane as the war drags on and as economic costs associated with the war rise in the European Union and the United States.

The Weimar Triangle, through three of Europe’s most influential states, is well positioned to ensure Europe continues to support Ukraine. Germany, Poland, and France can use the Weimar Triangle to coordinate further direct military aid to Ukraine, including ensuring swift reexport approval when necessary, and maintain support for European Union projects like the European Peace Facility, the European Defense Fund, and the European Defense Industry through Common Procurement Act. Keeping arms and aid flowing will allow Kyiv to keep the fight going. In an event hosted by the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, Prime Minister Morawiecki shifted focus to the future, calling for “a new Marshall Plan for Ukraine and the entire region.” Getting the economic heavyweights of Germany and France on the same page for Ukraine’s post-war reconstruction will be necessary to achieve such a goal.

Coordinating China Policy

Visits by both Scholz and Macron to Beijing, and the intense debate that has followed each of them, have made it clear that a coherent European policy on China is missing.  In April, while renewing his advocacy for European strategic autonomy, Macron warned for Europe to avoid being dragged into “crises that are not ours,” in reference to possible conflict between the United States and China over Taiwan. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock visited China just days after Macron and warned Beijing to deescalate tensions with Taiwan, distancing Berlin’s position from that of Paris. Since then, Poland’s Prime Minister Morawiecki criticized Western European states for prioritizing business over security vis-á-vis China, remarking that some countries “are trying to make with China the same mistake that was made with Russia.” 

In a speech to the European Parliament, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen once again stressed the importance of European Union countries aligning on China policy. In doing so, she repeated a statement she has made before, “a strong European China policy relies on strong coordination between Member States and EU institutions, and on a willingness to avoid the divide and conquer tactics that we know we may face.” While von der Leyen’s calls for policy unity and economic “de-risking” ties with China may resonate with the EU’s member states, China policy is ultimately crafted at the member state level. The Weimar Triangle, however, could help shape the direction of member state’s China policies if Europe’s leading actors in France, Germany, and Poland can find room for congruence on their respective China strategies.

Leading Through the Weimar Forum

The Weimar Triangle is an established forum that can and should be used to both maintain European support for Ukraine and to plan for the challenges that China’s rise will pose in the future. The Franco-German engine is still the dominant axis in European politics, but Central and Eastern Europe’s influence is growing. Chancellor Scholz took initiative in February 2023, convening the heads of the Weimar Triangle on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference, resulting in a joint statement that promised further coordination. Paris, Berlin, and Warsaw should follow up on that commitment to reinvigorate the Weimar Triangle.

Noah DeMichele is YPFP’s Rising Expert on Europe and a master’s student at the George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs.  His research interests focus on transatlantic relations and German foreign policy. Follow Noah on Twitter.