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Mar 22, 2024

The UK-Shaped Hole in Organizing Europe’s Security

The Weimar Triangle of France, Germany, and Poland is now supposed to propel Europe’s response to Russia’s war against Ukraine, but it isn’t working. Including the United Kingdom is essential.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak with President Volodymyr Zelensky (right) at a signing ceremony during a visit to the Presidential Palace in Kyiv, Ukraine, to announce a major new package of ?2.5 billion in military aid to the country over the coming year, January 12, 2024.
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Olaf Scholz cannot trust Emmanuel Macron. The French president regards the German chancellor as lacking leadership skills. Both men are keen to include Poland, but which Poland—the pro-Western one or the previous nationalist, “New Right” one? As for the new Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, he suspects that both the Germans and the French are not as committed to the defense of Ukraine as they claim.

This new trinity at the heart of Europe is an unholy one. It is formally known as the Weimar Triangle, denoting the German city where the group was first constituted in 1991, shortly after the collapse of communism. The group has been largely dormant over the years but is being revived largely in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its wider threat to Europe.

The three countries are now seen as leading the European Union’s struggle to agree on how to deal with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Meeting in Berlin on March 15 they were all smiles, enthusiastically emphasizing for the cameras the need to prevent Putin from “winning” (a term that is deliberately vague). But at the heart of this disagreement are competing visions for the future of Europe. Since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine two years ago, all three countries have adopted fluctuating positions toward Russia, and toward each other. 

Scholz vs. Macron vs. Tusk

Scholz’ famed Zeitenwende appeared to presage radical change, a hardened Germany adopting a hardened approach to the use of force in defense of democracy. Germany has overtaken the United Kingdom as by far Europe’s largest supplier of military aid to Ukraine. And yet all the talk is of Berlin as a weakling, forever fearful of the Kremlin and staunchly refusing to send Taurus long-range cruise missiles to Kyiv, even though they might be a gamechanger.

Into this apparent moral void has stepped Macron, who at the start of the war portrayed himself as the great negotiator, the man who would make Putin see sense and bring him in from the cold. Having failed in that endeavor, the same Macron juxtaposes his tough talk on Russia with German “cowardice,” suggesting before and after the Berlin triangular meeting that European troops might end up in open combat with Russia. “Maybe at some point—I don’t want it, I won’t take the initiative—we will have to have operations on the ground, whatever they may be, to counter the Russian forces,” he declared.

The Germans regard threats of European forces in open combat with Russia as deeply irresponsible. Macron’s bravura, and his admonishment of the Germans, was rebuffed by German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius, who said his country did not need “any discussions about [who is] more or less courageous.”

Tusk’s put-down of Macron was pithier, calling on the French to produce “less talk and more ammo.” At the same time, in Warsaw they are keen to exploit Macron’s volte-face and any momentum it might inject into flagging European support for Ukraine. Referencing Alexandre Dumas’ classic book, The Three Musketeers, Tusk said Poland was ready to stand shoulder to shoulder with France, stressing that the European Union and NATO were based on the principle of “one for all, all for one.”

The personal relationship between the automaton Scholz and the flamboyant Macron—two caricatures that happen to be largely correct—has always been problematic. Scholz continues to emphasize the transatlantic alliance, while Macron has long been fixated on the grandiose but consistently vague term of “strategic autonomy.” Yet for all the president’s bombast, France has given a paltry amount to military assistance to Ukraine, while both the French and the Germans continue to languish below the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense agreed a decade ago.

Poland, in terms of GDP, outstrips both, at well over 3 percent, alongside the Nordics and Baltics, who are impressively resolute in their approach to Russia. Under the previous populist Law and Justice (PiS) government, Poland’s relations with France were fractious and with Germany poisonous. That is no longer the case under Tusk, a former European Council president and thus EU veteran. Yet the Poles are still wary of the motives of the other two.

Counterfactual Geostrategy

At this point it is worth delving into counter-factual geostrategy. How different might European resolve and cohesion toward Russia have been if the old motor—Germany, France, and the UK—were still driving the EU? Or to put another way: Is there a UK-sized hole at the heart of European security, or is this a typical case of British over-claiming?

To imagine Britain as still part of the EU in the midst of the Ukraine conflict, you have to presuppose the UK of pre-2016, before the Brexit referendum. As one German diplomat put it to me recently: “Even when we disagreed with the British, we regarded them as trustworthy partners.” 

Then came the era of five British prime ministers (and counting) and consistently unpredictable and hostile behavior in Europe. Even outside the EU, attempts were made to hug the UK close in the E3 format, with the French and Germans. That withered away as bad faith on all sides increased.

The tone of engagement is expected to change markedly under the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, who, barring an extraordinary turnaround, is expected to become prime minister after the UK’s next general election, which is due to take place before the end of the year. Could the triangle then become a square or rectangle?

Something to Offer

The British have something to offer each of the other three. Like France, as a nuclear power, they bring heft to the defense discussions. Although military aid for Ukraine has waned in recent months—largely because British stocks are depleted—Britain’s support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the run-up to the war and the immediate period after it began is regarded as crucial in shoring up a country whose future was uncertain.

While London has been increasingly frustrated by Germany’s foot-dragging, particularly on Taurus, it also respects the aggregate amount of military hardware that Berlin has quietly provided. London is also keen to praise the arc of Northern and Central European countries, including Poland, in their approach to Ukraine.

While all these points are important, the real driver of a new four-way relationship would be the potential election of Donald Trump as US president in November. Given the increasing prospect of his victory and the dire consequences for Europe and for global democracy, it would be a mark of pragmatism and maturity on the part of these three governments to find a way of harnessing the British contribution to European security, extending it beyond NATO.

For as long as the Conservatives are in power in Westminster (and a particular type of Conservative at that), that was always going to be next to impossible. Paris and Berlin, not to mention the Brussels institutions, have long insisted that the United Kingdom should not be “rewarded” for its decision to leave the EU.

Yet, as relationships fray between France and Germany, as the European architecture changes, as the United States at best withdraws, at worst becomes a threat to Ukraine’s future, such principles will seem harder to sustain. A new and more flexible motor for Europe, including both Poland and the United Kingdom, will be of existential importance.

John Kampfner is a regular contributor to The Guardian, Foreign Policy, and DIE ZEIT. His new book, “In Search of Berlin,” was published in late 2023.

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