Reluctant leadership

The disengaged culture of military moderation promoted by Berlin restricts the EU from playing a geopolitical role and puts the future of NATO at risk.

The disengaged culture of military moderation promoted by Berlin restricts the EU from playing a geopolitical role and puts the future of NATO at risk.

The EU defence policy faces many challenges but one of them may be more important than the others. Let’s call it the ‘German paradox’. In essence, it postulatesthat while the need for more common and individual efforts of the EU member states to provide for their own security has become obvious, their success depends largely on a country which does not feel any immediate security threats. Unlike in the past, Germany’s famous Mittellage (position in the middle of the continent) is not a source of discomfort but complacency. While theFrench, Italians and Spaniards look to the South plagued by wars, terrorism and irregular migration with apprehension. Poles and Romanians feel threatened by Putin’s revisionism. But the Germans – surrounded by friendly and stable neighbours -do not fear that their world is likely to collapse like a house of cards any time soon. In other words, the often announced return of the modern world has not yet materialized in post-modern Germany. But Europe as a whole will be unable to live up to its role as a security player unless its central power forsakesthis imagined comfort zone.

Of course, German reluctance to take security policy as seriously as the needs of a Trumpian world would require is not only a geopolitical stance. The legacy of post-war pacifismis just important to Germany as the American security umbrella over the European border statespreviously divided by the Iron Curtain. Both gave the (West) German elite good reason (and excuses) not to bother with strategic thinking and military engagement. With the rising unpredictability of the U.S., the instability of Europe’s neighbourhood, and the deliberate efforts of Russia and China to undermine the EU’s unity, the German ‘culture of restraint’ is becoming more and more anachronistic. In fact the stakes for Germany could not be higher: the country depends on the multilateral, rules based, liberal order more than any other. But because the Germans still feel relatively safe, they struggle to accept the obvious truth: without a fundamental rethinking of their approach to security, international responsibility and not least military engagement the whole framework they rely upon could be compromised.

This is the true ‘German paradox’ – or the new German question – which carries much more weight than the defence spending controversy dominating the policy agenda. To be clear: the state of the Bundeswehr and its level of underfunding areuntenable. The warning issued by Hans-Peter Bartels, the all-powerful parliamentary spokesperson for Bundeswehr, who earlier this year admitted that the German army as a whole ‘is currently not deployable within the framework of the [NATO] alliance’ speaks volumes. The efforts to make the army fit for purpose undertaken by the federal government in recent months have been noteworthy – but still insufficient. To be sure, the Defence Minister Ursula van der Leyencan lay claim to having successfully battled for an increase of her defence budget. Amounting to 39 Billion Euro (2 Billion more than 2017) this year, it will climb to almost 43 Billion in 2019 – a sum the former German cabinet only expected to reach in 2021 by. However, the planned increases are still far below what would be required to meet the NATO goal of 2% GDP in defence spending in 2024 and cover the required expenditure. The Merkel government has already announced that Germany will spend no more than 1,5% of its GDP by then – despite the fierce criticism by Donald Trump ahead of the recent NATO summit and pressure by other partners in the alliance. But the question of what this money can really buy is far more important than the mathematical calculations. According to an expert quoted by the Handelsblatt daily, ‘the spending will mostly be used to increase personnel and won’t begin to cover the urgently needed updating of equipment and weapons systems’. In April 2018 the ministry of defence announced a plan of acquisitionsfor the most needed equipment to fill the main gaps to be carried out until the end of the year. Eighteen projects worth more than 25 Million Euro each are now in the pipeline. But the slow process and bad management of the acquisition policy has always been the Achilles’ heel of the German defence policy and needs to be improved no less urgently than its financial situation.

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