By IULIAN ROMANYSHYN
As watchful observers are examining the balance sheet of the German EU presidency, one little-discussed outcome of Berlin’s six-months stint is the reactivation of intra-EU consultations among France, Germany and Poland.
The foreign ministers of the so-called Weimar Triangle met in mid-October in Paris and delivered a joint statement – the first since 2016 – with a surprisingly wide scope, from EU relations with Russia and China to management of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even though Warsaw remains embattled with EU institutions over the rule of law in the country, the meeting underlined overlapping security concerns and, most importantly, signalled that Berlin and Paris might be ready to listen to and to take Polish views on board.
There are two rationales for reviving European strategic dialogue in the Weimar Triangle format.
For one, the prospect of the Joe Biden presidency has revealed a split between France and Germany on the question of centrality of the transatlantic link for the future of European security.
German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer stressed that Europe cannot defend itself without the US and Nato, which provoked a fierce response by French president Emmanuel Macron, the main advocate of Europe’s greater independence in world affairs.
Poland is a third piece of a puzzle in the debate on EU strategic autonomy.
It is the only ally among the three who long spends two percent of its GDP on defence, in line with NATO commitments.
Polish defence minister has weighed in to support Kramp-Karrenbauer in her squabble with Macron, but unlike Germany, Poland puts a higher premium on bilateral defence cooperation with the US outside of multilateral EU or Nato frameworks.
This is in part a result of a conviction that neither France nor Germany can credibly replace the US security guarantee against Russia, a concern that is shared by many countries in central and eastern Europe.
In the post-Brexit era, the convergence of preferences among France, Germany and Poland holds the key to the prospect of a stronger and more capable EU in security and defence.
Like its original mission of smoothing the differences between East and West during EU enlargement, the Weimar Triangle can serve as a laboratory of consensus on the sensitive issues of threat perceptions, the purpose of EU strategic autonomy, and the European engagement in Nato.
The Triangle members would therefore be well advised to make such consultations more systematic and high-level. It is easy to forget that less than a decade ago France, Germany and Poland have already been in the driver’s seat of EU defence integration by insisting on triggering the permanent structured cooperation and by elevating security and defence portfolio to the top of EU agenda.
And while it is true that the current Polish government is not a vocal enthusiast of the EU’s Common Security & Defence Policy (CSDP), this attitude might change, especially if the Biden administration will be forceful in linking stronger security ties with democratic values.
In addition to enhancing cohesion, the Weimar Triangle is also instrumental in keeping a sustained focus on the EU’s eastern neighbourhood.
In 2014, Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski dragged his French and German counterparts into a mediation mission which successfully brokered a truce between the government and opposition forces in Ukraine.
Today, the Eastern neighbourhood is as volatile as ever with unprecedented protests in Belarus, a fully-fledged military conflict in the South Caucasus and with Russian military presence in all the six countries of the Eastern Partnership (in most cases, against their will).
It is true that EU strategic autonomy is being tested in the Mediterranean, but it shouldn’t imply that on its Eastern flank the EU can sit back and watch the US (or anyone else) doing the job for them.
On the contrary, as Washington will be preoccupied with the competition in Asia-Pacific, the burden of defence and deterrence against Russia must be increasingly shared by Europeans.
This predicament doesn’t yet appear to be realised by EU leaders.
At the last EP plenary debate in December, the EU’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell was in a hot seat for the EU’s perceived lack of resolve in Nagorno-Karabakh and Belarus.
In response to the criticism, Borrell asked to tone down the expectations arguing that diplomacy and funds is all the EU has.
But it’s hard to imagine how the EU wants to be more of a geopolitical player without applying full spectrum of its power and falling short of meaningful security assistance to the partners in need.
Take Ukraine. After six years of simmering war with Russia in the country’s East, EU member states are still ambivalent about supplying Ukraine with lethal military aid.
Poland supports the idea, but France and Germany are among the main sceptics.
The EU does run a civilian advisory mission to reform Ukraine’s security sector, but its annual budget (€27m) is dwarfed in comparison to the US military assistance ($250m, €203m) or the UK’s recent loan (£1.25bn, €1.38bn) granted to rebuild Ukraine’s Black Sea navy fleet.
The year 2021 marks the 30th anniversary of the Weimar Triangle.
Leaders of France, Germany and Poland should not miss this opportunity to revive their strategic dialogue, make security and defence a priority area and step up their engagement with the Eastern neighbourhood. /EUobserver