Still in its shadow - German coalition falls short on defence


Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Paul Taylor
Paul Taylor

Senior Fellow for Peace, Security and Defence at Friends of Europe

Germany’s not-so-grand coalition partners have missed an opportunity to rise to the challenge of building a credible European defence. While paying lip service to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mantra that Europe must “take its fate in its hands”, the coalition agreement sealed on 7 February 2018 shows a depressing lack of financial or strategic commitment to put those bold words into action.

Despite a sizable fiscal surplus, intense pressure from the United States to boost military spending and a desire to respond to French President Emmanuel Macron’s call to create a European Defence Union, Merkel’s conservatives and the centre-left Social Democrats remain unwilling to invest substantial extra resources needed by their run-down armed forces.

They agreed to only a slight increase of €1bn a year in the defence budget spread over the next four years beyond existing medium-term spending plans. An equal amount for extra outlays on development aid, humanitarian assistance and other tools of crisis prevention have furthermore been allocated. They also chose to further restrict Berlin’s arms export.

The deal means the military budget is projected to reach €43.4bn euros in 2021 compared to €37bn in 2017. Far from reaching NATO’s spending target of 2% of GDP on defence, Europe’s biggest economy will struggle to rise above 1.2% if GDP growth and inflation stay as they are.

True, a clause in the coalition pact says defence would be a priority area if larger fiscal surpluses became available. But that is hardly a firm commitment. Furthermore, it is not clear whether the limited extra funds will be spent on equipment or pay rises, given the need to attract and retain recruits in a tight labour market.

The German coalition agreement is in sharp contrast to the more ambitious plans outlined by Macron’s government last week

If grassroots Social Democrats endorse the deal in a vote in early March, which is by no means certain, Berlin will be on course for cautious continuity in defence policy with no step change, barring unforeseen events.

For example, Germany will continue to limit its contribution to the international coalition against Islamic State to reconnaissance flights over Syria and Iraq, while France, the United Kingdom and smaller countries such as Denmark are conducting air strikes alongside the US.

The German coalition agreement is in sharp contrast to the more ambitious plans outlined by Macron’s government last week which call for a €1.7bn annual increase in defence spending to 2021, with a 3% annual rise thereafter to reach the NATO goal. France was already at 1.79% of GDP last year, while Germany was forecast to reach 1.22%, according to NATO data. The industry federation BDI said actual German military spending in 2017 was just 1.15% of GDP.

Christian Democrat Ursula von der Leyen, who has carried out some courageous but incomplete reforms in arms procurement, military organisation and strategic thinking over the last four years, is set to remain defence minister. However, it seems unlikely that she would get the additional resources needed to quickly remedy the armed forces’ severe shortages of equipment, training and maintenance.

Defence and international security played little role in the campaign for last September’s general election, apart from the Social Democrats’ loud denunciation of “rearmament” and rejection of the NATO spending target which their own foreign minister had signed up to in 2014.

Merkel’s first attempt to form a government with the centre-right Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens collapsed in November when the FDP walked out of negotiations. But even that more pro-defence potential coalition had not agreed to allocate any of the fiscal surpluses to the military.

Indeed, with rare exceptions, there seems to be a cross-party consensus, backed by public opinion, that extra spending should go on civilian priorities such as childcare, improving broadband coverage, repairing infrastructure and care for the elderly.

Within the EU, Germany was one of the main drivers of last December’s decision to launch Permanent Structured Cooperation in defence

This dismays the German strategic community, which argues that Berlin must take military responsibility equivalent to its economic weight in the EU and the Western alliance. To be sure, the previous grand coalition did commit German forces to front-line duty in Lithuania to deter any Russian aggression in the Baltic states after Moscow seized and annexed Crimea from Ukraine and destabilised eastern Ukraine, and joined a UN peacekeeping and training mission in Mali after France intervened militarily to prevent Islamist fighters taking over the country.

Yet these new German roles stopped short of participating in combat operations.

“We should not develop the reputation of being one of the world’s best freeloaders”, Munich Security Conference chairman Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to Washington, told Reuters in an interview last week.

“The biggest European Union state is all for victory over Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; we take photos, but we leave the dirty business of shooting to others,” Ischinger said.

Within the EU, Germany was one of the main drivers of last December’s decision to launch Permanent Structured Cooperation in defence with 25 of the 27 member states participating ‒ not counting the UK which is leaving the Union. The “regatta start” was a triumph for inclusiveness over military ambition, which critics fear will fail to generate either increased military capabilities or the political resolve to use them.

That may suit risk-averse Germans, but it doesn’t respond adequately to Europe’s growing security challenges. And it is frustrating for the French and others who want Europe to develop joint intervention forces, a common military doctrine and a joint defence budget.

Macron seems determined to pursue his “European intervention initiative” with a smaller coalition of the willing and capable outside the EU framework. So Germany will still face a choice of how far to commit to such French efforts, but without the comfort blanket of EU rules and procedures.

In a report for Friends of Europe last year on Germany and the future of European defence, I argued that Germans needed to jump over the dark shadow of the Nazi past and play a more robust role in international security commensurate with their country’s population size and wealth. The coalition agreement suggests their leaders, despite all the rhetoric, have opted to stay in what they clearly feel is the comfort zone of that shadow.

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