Three Key Defense Issues to Watch in German Politics

A view of the Bundestag plenary chamber.
A view of the Bundestag plenary chamber.

By Michelle Shevin-Coetzee, George Washington University alumni and member of the European Horizons Alumni Network.

After the sudden collapse of preliminary coalition talks among four of Germany’s political parties, the once hypothetical scenario of another grand coalition – not to mention a minority government, a hybrid “cooperation coalition,” or even a fresh election – is now very real. The Free Democratic Party (FDP) withdrew from the talks, dashing the hopes of building a so-called “Jamaica Coalition” among the remaining Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Greens. Although the talks stalled due to a “lack of trust” and irresolvable differences over climate and migration, the future of European defense policy will emerge as an important debate going forward. Should one of the political outcomes bring the CDU/CSU and the Social Democratic Party (SPD) to the formal negotiating table, here are three key defense issues to watch.

First, the ever-present two percent target. At the 2014 Wales Summit, the then-28 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies pledged to reverse negative trends in defense spending and commit two percent of GDP to it. The two percent debate is a charged topic in European defense policy, particularly since the election of President Donald Trump in the United States. Although it is important for Washington’s Canadian and European allies to meet this commitment, President Trump’s bombastic language and transactional approach is souring the alliance at the political level.

During Germany’s 2017 election campaign, Martin Schulz, the leader of the SPD, argued against meeting this commitment, suggesting that Germany should focus on providing diplomatic and development aid instead. Schulz drew a clear distinction between his party and Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU, which agreed to reach the two percent goal by 2024. This debate is likely to resurface and risks not only stoking further anti-American sentiment in Germany, but also recasting the two percent commitment as an American, not a NATO-wide initiative. Linking American pleas for Europe, particularly Germany, to increase defense spending with Berlin “kowtowing” to President Trump’s demands is deeply concerning for the alliance.

Second, the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany. Considered a relic of the Cold War by many citizens and some politicians, U.S. nuclear weapons are stationed on German soil as part of the American commitment to NATO’s Nuclear Sharing policy. There are an estimated twenty nuclear weapons stationed at Büchel Air Base in Germany’s Rhineland-Palatinate. Given Germany’s cautious approach to military elements of national power, not to mention nuclear energy, skepticism of this basing arrangement among the population is not new. In 2009, opposition to the stationing of nuclear weapons became a prominent political issue when the then-new coalition between the CDU/CSU and FDP called for the parties to “advocate…the removal of the remaining nuclear weapons from Germany.”

Berlin did not pursue this objective, but debate surrounding this issue is resurfacing. Removing U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany was raised both during the election campaign by the SPD’s Schulz and during the failed preliminary coalition talks by the Greens. Pursuing such an agenda would have significant repercussions for NATO’s nuclear deterrent, precisely at the time when Europe needs to be united in the face of increasing nuclear threats by Russia. It could lead other allies to question their commitment to hosting U.S. nuclear weapons or to reopen basing arrangements, and make frontline states, such as those in the Baltic region, feel less secure when confronted by an increasingly provocative Kremlin.

Third, the momentum of European defense. The convergence of a heightened threat environment and political upheaval in both the United States and United Kingdom is spawning a willingness among European Union (EU) member states to assume a greater role in defense. Striving to overcome a checkered track record of defense policy coordination and integration, EU member states are establishing a slew of new initiatives. A few examples of recent and ongoing developments include exploring proposals to research and procure weapons systems jointly through the European Defense Fund, coordinating EU military operations through the Military Planning and Conduct Capability office, and taking a more comprehensive view of investments and shortfalls through the Coordinated Annual Review on Defense. The latest announcement of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), a previously unused framework from the Lisbon Treaty, is perhaps the most ambitious effort with an initial 23, and now 25, EU member states agreeing to collaborate further in defense.

Germany, alongside France, is at the forefront of these initiatives, seeking to transform the EU into a credible defense actor. Should Berlin return to the negotiating table – or, even more cumbersome, domestic campaigning – it will lack the necessary bandwidth over the short-term to move these efforts forward. Over the long-term, depending on the result, it could suck up Germany’s political capital to pursue, and implement, its current plans for the future of European defense policy. With Germany muted from the debate and Europe waiting, the onus will fall upon France and leave Paris as the undisputed trailblazer of European defense policy within the EU itself. For PESCO, in particular, this dynamic could reorient its focus from Berlin’s preference for “inclusivity” to France’s original proposal for “ambition.” Such a transformation could have a significant impact on member states’ approach to PESCO, let alone their willingness to participate.

The next few weeks and months will be an important time for Germany not just domestically, but internationally as well. Berlin’s leadership in the EU is critical, and its role in shaping European defense policy should not be overlooked. Perennial topics such as the economy, industry, and security, as well as the newly-identified red lines of health, migration, and pensions would resurface during potential negotiations, not to mention Schulz’s recent call for a United States of Europe by 2025. However, a reprisal of the grand coalition, or a form of minority government, would also influence the future of European defense policy. NATO’s two percent target, the removal of U.S. nuclear weapons from Germany, and the momentum of European defense will be three key issues to watch.

Michelle Shevin-Coetzee is a Research Assistant at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington, D.C. She recently participated in the “NATO’s Future in an Unpredictable World” seminar sponsored by Germany’s Youth Atlantic Treaty Association (YATA). The views and opinions expressed in this article are hers alone.

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