European Elections Special

The changing tone

What might have been started at the Munich conference is a strategic debate on a reinvigorated role for both Germany and the EU in international security.

During the Bundestag elections of 2013 foreign, security, and defence policy was not a significant issue, nor did it have a high profile in last November’s coalition agreement. However, in 2014 it has generated an increasing amount of interest in policy circles, academia and the media. In particular, the speeches of German President Joachim Gauck, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, and Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the annual Munich Security Conference, are reshaping the debate on German foreign and security policy.

The call by these high profile political figures for Germany to assume more ‘responsibility in Europe and the World’ is a significant (for now rhetorical) shift from the policies of the previous government. Perhaps most notable is the increased emphasis on enhancing Germany’s role within European Union (EU) foreign, security and defence policy, including greater contributions to military missions (where approved by the Bundestag).

Germany has come far in the last 20 years

As the leading political and economic power in Europe, the German foreign and defence ministries are keen to manoeuvre German foreign and security policy away from ‘aloof’ commentating from the ‘sidelines’ toward ‘more decisive and more substantive engagement.’ However, the forces of change will not be given free reign. Many in the German political establishment, most importantly, Chancellor Merkel, are keen to ensure that the long-standing policy of military restraint continues to guide notions of greater responsibility. Merkel sees serious limitations in military intervention and knows that two-thirds of Germans polled oppose any increased use of the military overseas. These concerns are visible in both Steinmeier’s and von der Leyen’s comments on foreign and security policy, stressing that the military alone is no solution and that it is a tool of last resort. Yet, it is important to note that this last point actually shows how far Germany has come in the last 20 years. Prior to the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s using military force, even as a last resort, outside the NATO area was unthinkable, indeed illegal, for Germany.

This gradual evolution away from purely civilian power ways of thinking and acting is mirrored within the EU, as it moved towards establishing a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) in 1999. Almost in parallel Germany and the EU have cautiously edged towards adding military capabilities to their foreign and security policy toolbox. Their thinking on the utility of military force is also closely aligned, viewing it as just one element in a ‘Comprehensive Approach’ to crisis management. The EU and Germany have also developed a converging discourse of responsibility in international affairs, with von der Leyen arguing ‘if we have capabilities – we have the obligation and we have the responsibility to engage.’

Maintaining the long-term objective of creating a European army

Therefore, while it is unlikely to happen quickly, it is in CSDP where Germany’s recent rhetoric of taking more responsibility in the world and a providing more decisive and substantive engagement has the greatest prospect of being converted into substantive policy and capabilities. Defence Minister von der Leyen is strongly pro-European and is keen to reinvigorate European Defence, with Germany playing a leading role. At the Munich conference she stressed that if the ‘Europeans want to remain a credible actor in security policy, we must plan and act together’ and that EU states need to ‘learn speak with one voice.’ This is framed within the context of declining defence budgets and the US ‘pivot to Asia’, leaving the Europeans needing to coordinate defence spending to ensure their and their neighbourhood’s security.

The importance of CSDP was also stressed in the coalition agreement, which called for annual European Council sessions on defence, a strategic debate on the purpose of CSDP, and maintaining the long-term objective of creating a European army. There have also been calls to strengthen the role of both the EU’s High Representative and the European External Action Service, and to improve coordination between foreign policy, trade & development policy (the Comprehensive Approach).

Greater burden-sharing?

The changing tone of German foreign and security policy discourse has been complimented by an increase in Germany’s contribution to the EU mission in Mali and a pledge to contribute to the imminent EU military operation in the Central African Republic. However, both these contributions are non-combat, demonstrating that a stronger German role in military operations will not happen overnight. Yet, they should be welcomed by other EU states as a tangible demonstration of an increasing responsibility for conflict management. However, while German ministers speak of greater burden-sharing (in a transatlantic sense) they also need to consider burden- and, importantly, risk-sharing within the EU.

None of these developments mean the militarisation of German foreign and security policy, nor do they mean the establishment of a European Army. Indeed, neither of these outcomes are politically desired or likely as the legacy of civilian power still infuses German and EU strategic cultures. What is more likely is greater responsibility and engagement in the shape of Germany’s role in determining the EU response to the crisis in Ukraine. Nevertheless, what is needed, and what might have been started at the Munich conference, is a strategic debate on a reinvigorated role for both Germany and the EU in international security. The success of these debates is deeply intertwined. A successful CSDP needs Germany and Germany needs a successful CSDP.

Read more in this debate: Franz-Josef Jung, Ana Gomes.

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