By PATRICK STEPHENSON
BRUSSELS – “It’s high time for Germany to step out of the shadow of its past,” Paul Taylor, columnist for Politico, declared at a 10 October presentation of his report, “Jumping Over Its Shadow: Germany and the Future of European Defence”.
With Europeans fearful that US President Donald Trump’s tough talk on EU defence spending may signal an American disengagement from Europe, EU experts believe the time may be ripe for a more central German contribution to European defence.
But the manner of that contribution remains controversial, most of all in Germany itself. Should Germany spend more? spend better? Should it partner more closely with the EU, or more directly with France?
Gilles Merritt, head of the “Friends of Europe” think-tank that published Taylor’s report, opened the conference on a fearful note. “I’ve been aware how ineffectual German military capabilities are,” he said. “But I hadn’t realised the depth of the problem. [Taylor’s] analysis sends shivers down my spine.”
He referred to passages in the report that paint a grim picture of German military readiness. The percentage of military assets ready for deployment – considered by experts to be a key indicator of a force’s ‘hollowness’ – is, for some units, shockingly low.
“Most of Germany’s military helicopters can’t fly,” the report bluntly states. “Only about half of the air force’s Eurofighter combat jets are working because of a lack of spare parts and maintenance.” The report also describes ammunition stocks as in some areas only “symbolic”. Even if new ammunition were purchased, the Bundeswehr would have nowhere to store it: many military warehouses were sold off in an effort to cut costs.
With this dysfunctional military, Chancellor Angela Merkel confronts a new and disorienting political situation in 2017. “She has to deal with the four horsemen of the apocalypse: Putin, Trump, Brexit and ISIS,” Taylor said, who added President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey to the mix as a “half” fifth horseman.
Two things, according to Taylor, shifted Merkel’s worldview starting in 2014: Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, and the influx of 1.3 million refugees in 2015. “Her geopolitical view of the world changed,” he said.
Taylor described how Merkel had German government experts produce maps with all the countries in the Schengen region in one colour, and all outside countries in another colour. From these maps, she realised that, in effect, Germany’s border security did not end with Poland and Italy, but with Russia, Turkey, Israel and Morocco. “It was a wake up call for her,” Taylor said.
Then two Western allies on whom Germany had depended so much for its security “wandered off the reservation”: the United Kingdom with its Brexit vote and the United States, with the election of its leader who views international security as transactional, “where you pay your protection money or else”, as Taylor put it.
Germany’s defence spending turned a corner, if a slight one, on defence spending in 2016 after a long decline. In 2017, the country is projected to spend 1.22% of its GDP on defence – still well below NATO’s spending guideline of 2 percent of GDP, though. By contrast, France will spend 1.78% of its GDP on defence.
And there spending levels will stay, opined Taylor. “Unless the Germans do something radical, [their] defence spending will stagnate at just about 1.2% of GDP” for the next four to five years,” he said.
SECURITY EUROPE asked what the implications would be for NATO if German military spending does not meet the 2 per cent goal affirmed by the allies at their September 2014 Wales summit.
“It depends on what other nations do,” he said. “If other nations spend more and Germany does not, it will become more of an issue. It will also depend on what [US President Donald] Trump tweets. What matters more is what they [German military services] spend it on.”
Other chapters focus on equipment interoperability and industrial teaming possibilities but all this is moot if Germany shies away from projecting military force – the main factor that blocks the country from taking a greater role in European military affairs.
According to Taylor there are only three feasible future scenarios for the German military. The first would be to build up a relatively static tank-heavy army to help deter Russia. “That’s what NATO wants them to do,” Taylor said. “But many would say, that’s the least likely contingency. It’s like waiting for Godot.”
The second is what the French prefer: more mobile, deployable forces that could assist the French military in putting out fires across North Africa and the Sahel. But that task would involve “recognising the French view of hard security with the German view of a comprehensive approach, which often means the opposite of hard security.”
A third solution put forward by the European External Action Service focusses on both EU-level cyberdefence and a ‘comprehensive’ security approach that includes post-conflict reconstruction and institution-building.
But a long-lasting antidote to Germany’s defence woes must involve the ancient bugaboo of real Franco-German military integration. The threats may be to Germany’s east, but the solution is to the west.