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Commentary | 1 September 2017

Will Germans uphold the new foreign policy and defence consensus after the election?

Defence Foreign policy Germany European Defence

Throughout the course of Angela Merkel’s chancellorship, Germany was called on by its allies to take on ‘more responsibility’ on foreign policy and defence issues. The current government has made significant new commitments, from the NATO pledge in 2014 to spend 2% of its GDP on defence to last year’s efforts on leading on EU defence integration.

A continuation of the CDU-SPD grand coalition will most likely provide the greatest continuity of this trend. A CDU-led government with smaller coalition parties such as the Greens or the liberal FDP would likely face strains over defence questions. Should the SPD lead a coalition with the Greens, FDP or even the left party Die Linke, the recent defence policies could be called into question. The right-wing AfD is unlikely to be considered as coalition partner by any of the other parties. No matter the outcome, the current election campaign shows that broader domestic engagement is necessary to clarify Germany’s new position in international affairs and its changing military role.


Merkel’s coalitions’ foreign policy so far

Merkel’s first two coalition governments clashed over a number of important foreign policy decisions. In 2005, Merkel’s first grand-coalition government of the Christian Democrats (CDU/CSU) and Social Democrats (SPD) had a rocky start due to divisions over the transatlantic relationship and deteriorating West-Russia relations. The 2009 coalition with the liberal Free Democrats (FDP) also faced difficulties with the FDP opposed to participating in the Libya intervention and the coalition clashing over nuclear and conventional disarmament, a key policy of the liberals.

The second grand-coalition from 2013 was more successful. The experience of tackling the geopolitical shocks of 2014 – namely, responding to Russian intervention in Ukraine and the emergence of ISIS – through difficult compromises brought the CDU and SPD together.


Foreign policy and defence in the election campaigns

Those following the German elections will have noticed that the issue of defence has become central to the parties’ campaigns. The 2% spending pledge and fears of nuclear proliferation have led to significant criticism of Merkel by the SPD and opposition parties, the Greens and the leftist party die Linke.


Disarmament – the traditional German consensus

The commitment to disarmament, of both nuclear and conventional arms, is deeply rooted in German civil society and has been at the heart of three of the mainstream parties’ policies, the SPD, Greens and FDP, as well as the left party Die Linke. The CDU is therefore isolated on the issue which has caused disputes in the different coalitions.

Opposition parties, Die Linke and the Greens, call for prioritising nuclear disarmament and criticise the modernisation of the US nuclear arsenal in Germany. This reflects a wide consensus where all parties, in principle, are committed to the removal of nuclear weapons from Germany. However, the opposition have criticised the government for not supporting the nuclear ban treaty, its failure to reduce military exports and restrict investments in the arms industry. The SPD also blamed the CDU for failing to address these issues, although they took a less confrontational approach while they were in government than many would have expected. SPD candidate Martin Schulz tried to counter this just last week by making nuclear disarmament a key campaign pledge.

Government MPs point to increasing geopolitical risks and reject accusations of re-armament. They point out that Germany is living up to its multilateral commitments and filling capability gaps. They emphasise arms control successes, such as Germany’s role in the Iran nuclear deal, the decision to purchase a new “open skies” aircraft, its leadership in the OSCE on conventional arms control and confidence building measures, and its role in the destruction of chemical weapons from Libya.

A key challenge for the new government will be to explain how the commitment to NATO and EU defence integration is not about armament or increasing risks of an arms race. Furthermore, disarmament policy is highly dependent on international environment and particularly on the (inconsistent) position of the United States. Under Trump it will be difficult for the next German government to deliver tangible changes on nuclear disarmament.


Military Spending

NATO’s 2% defence spend pledge has been controversial for many of its allies. However, since Germany has been singled out by US President Trump for not spending enough on the defence, the Social Democrats have made their opposition to the pledge central to their campaign. The 2% commitment was made under the current grand coalition, making the SPD strategy risky. Martin Schulz’ approach is not against advancements in European Defence or the likely increase in defence spending that this will bring. Opposing 2% allows the SPD to appear to counter US pressure, criticise a policy by the defence ministry, currently under CDU control, and emphasise its greater commitment to the European Union, as compared to the CDU.

The CDU’s response is that the 2% pledge is about multilateral obligations that Germany has towards its partners. Although a long term goal, due to Donald Trump’s interference it has become an uncomfortable commitment. For opposition parties the pledge is also an opportunity to raise the alarm over non-transparent armament in their election campaigns, feeding into accusations of rearmament. These are concerns that resonate with the German public beyond party affiliations, a survey in late 2016 showed that two-thirds of Germans oppose increases military spending.

The 2024 deadline for the 2% pledge is inching closer with each new parliamentary term. Future German governments will find themselves under greater pressure to respond to NATO expectations and explain defence spending to the electorate. Despite the German resistance to the 2% pledge, no German government, even under an unlikely SPD leadership, will want to appear to undermine NATO.


The Bundestag’s control over the Bundeswehr

Foreign observers often point to the parliamentary control over the German army as the main obstacle to German military intervention. A parliamentary commission led by former defence minister Volker Rühe recently looked at reforming the Bundestag’s role. However divisions within and among the coalition parties meant that no new consensus was found. Although disappointing for many in the CDU, the overall take-away was that the parliamentary control is not the real obstacle to German military engagement. Rather it is the underlying divisions in coalition governments.

Clearer communication and more engagement by parliament in developing, for example, the defence white book, as suggested by some CDU MPs, would reduce the risk of hold-ups in parliament. Equally, at the international level, German governments should not use the role of the Bundestag as an excuse not to engage or live up to multilateral commitments but rather manage expectations of what Germany can contribute.

The next German government will be expected to live up to the expectations created by the recent grand coalition over Germany’s contribution to European defence through NATO and the EU. This will include upholding deterrence, contributing to European missions in the Sahel, and possibly more action, if not military, on the conflicts in the Middle East. This requires maintaining the consensus built between the CDU and the SPD. The politicised approach towards German foreign policy in the election campaign shows that this consensus requires a more transparent and comprehensive engagement on defence questions to address concerns on the principles of German foreign policy.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.