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Germany’s Social Democrats are turning defense spending into an election issue.
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At a recent NATO meeting, German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel opposed US demands for higher defense spending. Such a stance will play well in the coming campaign, but it may also serve a higher purpose: for far too long, Germans have avoided any debate about how much money to spend on military programs.

© REUTERS/Ints Kalnins

Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s foreign minister and a leading Social Democrat, is no stranger to electioneering. And at a meeting of NATO foreign ministers at the end of March in Brussels, he chose to go sharply against US demands for higher defense spending in a move he knew would score points for his party in German elections in September.

“I think it is totally unrealistic to believe that Germany will reach a military budget of more than €70 billion per year,” Gabriel said.

“I don’t know any politician in Germany who believes that this would be attainable in our country, or even desirable. I don’t even know where we would put all the airplane carriers that we would need to buy in order to invest €70 billion in the Bundeswehr.”

With less than six months to go until the federal elections set for September 24, Gabriel was playing up the anti-American and anti-military sentiment in Germany that has been much boosted by US President Donald Trump’s election.

Yet beyond his blunt rhetoric, he has a point: for political as well as for technical reasons, it would be extremely difficult for Germany to boost defense spending to the extent that Washington is calling for.

With a defense budget of €37 billion this year, a respectable 7.9 percent more than 2016, Germany still only spends about 1.2 percent of its GDP on the military. In Europe, only Britain, Poland, Estonia, and Greece reach the NATO goal of spending two percent of GDP on defense.  The alliance had set this goal in 2002 and confirmed it in 2014 after Russia invaded Ukraine.

President Trump, meanwhile, has called NATO into question, calling it “obsolete”, while heavily criticizing Germany and other European countries for not contributing enough to the alliance’s collective capabilities.

“It’s very unfair to the United States,” Trump said at a recent joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Washington. “These nations must pay what they owe – at least two percent.”

Pacifist Streak

With his open protest against Trump’s demands, Gabriel was playing to a German audience that is fiercely critical of the new American administration. Germany’s pacifist streak has been further strengthened by seeing countries like Iraq and Libya sink into chaos and civil war after Western military intervention.

For the Social Democrats, defense spending could become a major campaign theme for the federal elections on September 24. In Martin Schulz – who replaced Gabriel as party leader and candidate for the chancellery – the Social Democrats have a popular leader who has a real chance to threaten Merkel’s reelection.

Merkel herself is very much aware of public opinion. Despite the pressure from Washington, she has avoided any concrete promises beyond a commitment to increase the share of defense spending over the next several years.

Yet even beyond this year’s election campaign, Gabriel may have good reasons to question the two percent goal.

First of all, increasing spending quickly without wasting money would be very difficult. The Bundeswehr may have helicopters and other ancient bits of equipment that urgently need to be replaced, but this is stuff that doesn’t simply come off the shelf.

Weapon design and production take years and demand difficult negotiations with the armaments industry, and thanks to earlier budget cuts, the Bundeswehr’s procurement office is short of specialists. Of course, part of the US pressure may also be due to a desire to have the Germans buy American military equipment, which would be available more quickly.

Then there are political concerns. Were Germany to spend €60 or €70 billion per year on defense, it would become Europe’s foremost military power. On a continent already worried about German hegemony in the EU, this would be certain to fuel tensions.

Double Shock

At the same time, due to the double shock of Trump’s election and Britain leaving the European Union, the EU is rethinking its attitude towards defense.

Europe can no longer afford to waste the colossal amount of money that – despite many promises to the contrary – has been frittered away on too many incompatible and ineffective national armaments systems.

Collectively, Europeans spend about €200 billion per year on defense, compared to about €500 billion in the United States, EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said. Nevertheless, it only reaches about 12 to 15 percent of American efficiency in its spending.

For instance, Europe affords itself the luxury of 154 separate weapons systems, where the United States has 24. “That shows that we are spending our money for defense badly,” Juncker concluded.

So before agreeing to spend more, shouldn’t existing budgets be spent more effectively? The answer is obviously yes, but it is also clear that there has been a complete lack of political will to act on this insight. In order to build an effective European military force, much more pooling and sharing is needed, which will cost jobs in national industries.

Such specialization will also greatly increase EU countries’ mutual dependencies. This means they not only need a credible mutual defense agreement, but must also must find common ground for military interventions in the rest of the world. France and Germany, in particular, have to bridge a huge gap in strategic thinking.

None of this will be possible without an intensive public debate – the kind of debate about NATO, the EU, and defense that Germany’s politicians have long avoided. Chancellor Merkel in particular has preferred to keep the lowest possible profile on military matters while trying to keep Washington reasonably happy.

Yet between Trump and Gabriel, this strategy has clearly reached its limits. If the result is a real debate in Germany about its long-term defense strategy, the new German foreign minister’s knack for electioneering will have served a very useful purpose.