Brussels - Has anybody heard of the Weimar Triangle? "Is it something like the Bermuda Triangle?" asked one British diplomat. "I know. It's an ancient musical instrument written into the score of Beethoven's fifth," teased another.
In King Charles Street they may scoff. But while they do, the Weimar Triangle, Europe's newest power bloc, is beefing up itself - and, once again, Britain is being left out.
In the town of Weimar in 1991 the foreign ministers of Germany, France and Poland gathered to inaugurate a new alliance. Their meeting went almost unnoticed by the rest of Europe, but the foreign ministers of the three have continued to meet annually to devise "a common security concept".
This autumn they are to hold a summit in Poland, meeting, for the first time, at the level of heads of government. On the agenda will be security issues including joint military manoeuvres and combating organised crime.
Leading figures in Poland see the alliance as a potential new hard core for an enlarged Europe, and are keen to promote the influence of the triangle as a means of revitalising European integration. The idea of the triangle - or "axis" as it would more correctly be termed - was dreamt up originally by Hans Dietrich Genscher, the former German foreign minister. The intention, it seems, was to build on the Franco-German axis, which had developed as a model of post-war reconciliation.
For Germany, the symbolism was clear: in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and German reunification, it suddenly made sense to strengthen ties with Poland. Germany sees clear benefits in exercising influence over Poland which it wants to be among the first to join Nato, becoming a buffer on its eastern border. German investments in Poland are today worth $885m (pounds 590m), and 5,000 German companies are operating there. France, not wishing to cede influence to Germany in eastern Europe, has been content to go along with the Weimar Triangle plan.
For Poland the advantages were clear: new ties with Europe's driving duo meant a big step in from the European periphery towards a taste of power at the centre. It also meant a chance to lobby for early membership of Nato and the European Union.
At a meeting of the Weimar Triangle in France in 1992 Poland won agreement from Germany and France that it should have special association status at the Western European Union, the European arm of Nato. Some figures in Poland today voice grandiose ideas about creating an entire new balance of power in Europe, through which the Weimar Triangle can refuel the motor of European integration. "We are not talking about a new architecture for Europe. But the idea is to reinforce a bigger Europe by bringing these three big powers together as a new column," said Piotr Mowina-Kopka, a leading figure in the right-wing opposition.
The name given to the alliance has unfortunate historical connotations, inevitably recalling, in most European minds, the Weimar Republic between the wars. According to Krzyztof Skubiszewski, the first Polish foreign minister in the Solidarity government, who attended the founding meeting, the choice of Weimar for the first conference was meant to be a positive symbol.
Mr Genscher chose Weimar for the inaugural meeting because it was situated in former East Germany. Mr Skubiszewski, an international lawyer and fellow of All Soul's College, Oxford, said: "I remember the first meeting well. We ate and talked for two days. I don't remember any mention of the fact that this was where the Weimar constitution was adopted, which because of its exceptional provisions provided a basis for Hitler's rise to power." He added: "France, Germany and Poland have repeatedly been the area for European aggression and war. For Poland the Weimar Triangle meant new security through a link to the West."
Those left out of this particular "hard core" will be none too pleased if the axis shows sign of growing in influence. Other central and east European countries are jealous that Poland has been favoured.Countries such as Spain and Italy are certain to be affronted should the Poles assert that they have more of claim to sit at the heart of Europe than they. "It is all verbiage," said one Brussels commentator. "The only hard core in Europe that matters will be those inside the single currency."
"Typical Polish dreaming," said a Portuguese diplomat. "Why do they think Europe can protect them anyway. Look at our record. They would be better looking to the United States."
The British, meanwhile, watch on, bemused. The French they suspect of having ulterior motives. "France must have some other fish to fry," said one diplomat. As for the Poles: "They do talk about power in a way that suggests they think they are going to use it. But when you ask what economic resources they have they become a big shifty."
It is "impolite" to ask why the Poles should be so friendly with Germans, say the British, given that the Germans are the first to block Polish products at the borders. "Last year the Germans even stopped the import of Polish plastic gnomes because they were inferior to German plastic gnomes."
Nevertheless, there are signs of pique in London that Britain has not been invited to make the Triangle a square. There are those - even in government -who know that it makes sense to be inside European alliances from the start, just in case they lead somewhere. Germany's eastward ambitions are being particularly carefully observed.
"The Poles need to be careful about who they upset," said a British official. "It is not just the French and the Germans who are helping them. The British have done a lot for the Poles this century. If you ask anybody who are the most important European actors in Nato and the defence field they would say, France and Britain or Britain and France."
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies