Vice-versa: European defence and German interests

Julia Obermeier and Michael Gahler were asked for their views on EU and German defence policy.

Germany and the EU: How do they cooperate? Where do their approaches conflict and where are their interests aligned? EURACTIV Germany’s Vice-Versa series takes a look at the issue from both a European and federal government perspective.

European Union foreign ministers yesterday (6 March) approved the setting up of a central headquarters for joint EU military missions. A centralised command is part of the EU’s Defence Union, which is crucial to the bloc’s efforts to react to the changing security situation.

Terrorist attacks in Paris and Berlin, unrest in the Middle East and Russia’s annexation of Crimea have all changed the game. Europe is also being locked into a new arms race.

As the EU contends with the refugee crisis and rising rightwing populism, the appetite for more defence at European level has escalated. Germany is seeing a more “robust” foreign policy take hold when it comes to military involvement but it faces a number of homegrown challenges on top of further European collaboration.

EU takes first steps towards military HQ

EU foreign and defence ministers on Monday (6 March) agreed to create a joint command centre for the bloc’s military missions, a step towards more EU cooperation on security and defence.

EURACTIV Germany spoke to German CSU lawmaker and member of the Bundestag’s defence committee Julia Obermeier and CDU MEP and member of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee Michael Gahler (EPP).

German Foreign Minister Ursula von der Leyen has ensured that the German army will be better equipped with both resources and personnel going forward. But the number of equipment problems and growing number of international missions have stretched the Bundeswehr to its limit. Are von der Leyen’s plans too optimistic?

Julia Obermeier: Trend reversals in terms of equipment and personnel are underway. Last year, Germany increased its spending on military equipment and gear by 10%, totalling €5.1 billion. It’s the second year in a row that we have made complete use of the defence budget. Of course, this doesn’t all happen overnight and we are still tackling some of the problems with equipment. To that end, we have provided 6,000 of our soldiers with new battle gear, which has already been deployed in Afghanistan, Mali and Iraq.

In terms of personnel, the picture is not as bleak as is so often painted. After 26 years of gradually reducing the army, that trend has been reversed and following a low point in June 2016, 11,000 men and women have been recruited over the last few months into the military.

German army starts training refugees

Germany’s defence minister and employment agency, with the help of the country’s armed forces, are trialling a new strategy for getting young refugees onto the labour market. EURACTIV Germany reports.

Are the targets that have been set at all realistic without a massive increase in the defence budget?

JO: The Ministry of Defence has calculated that we will need to be investing €130 billion to adequately supply our troops by 2030. We are on our way to achieving this goal: the budget for 2017 has been increased by €2.7 billion to €37 billion, an increase of 8%. If we continue this trend then in the next 13 years we will top €100 billion for necessary investments. That means that the goal is achievable but we still have work to do.

Modernising the Bundeswehr and contributing to the EU’s Defence Union at the same time seem like over-ambitious goals. How will the army cope with this, now that we have established it has its own problems?

JO: They aren’t two mutually exclusive problems and actually go hand-in-hand. EU member states spend annually more than €200 billion on their armed forces, less than half what the United States does. But the member states also only reach about 10-15% of the Americans’ skill levels.

One of the reasons for this is inefficient defence procurement. Europe uses six times more different weapon systems than the US for example. The European Commission estimates that costs emerging from lack of cooperation between EU members racks up an additional bill of €25 billion a year. There is enormous saving potential there. There is also the chance to modernise the army in conjunction with the other member states.

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Global arms deals have reached their highest level since the end of the Cold War, according to one study. EURACTIV Germany reports.

What are Germany’s interests in the Defence Union?

JO: Closer cooperation at EU level will also strengthen Germany’s security within Europe. Because we must not forget: Germany and its EU partners have interests that do not necessarily align with the United States’, our most important NATO partner. The Middle East and Ukraine are on Europe’s doorstep, not America’s. From a German perspective, the EU is an actor that takes care of its immediate neighbourhood and also stands for security and freedom on a global level.

Divided Austria unites in opposition to EU army

Calls for an “EU army” to be set up have increased since Donald Trump’s US election victory, but neutral Austria, at least, is handling the issue very carefully. EURACTIV Germany reports.

One of the main goals of the Defence Union is to cut costs through joint procurement and development. At the same time, member states have an interest in using those EU funds to strengthen their own arms industries. Are conflicts in procurement therefore inevitable?

Michael Gahler: In the event of such conflicts, we must not lose sight of the European interest. The idea of the Defence Union is not to just put EU money into national research projects. Instead, European resources should complement national spending. European added value in defence has to be more clearly defined. It is partly to do with developing European military capabilities, common armaments programmes and standardising equipment, etc.

How do you explain the current trend of military build-up?

MG: European security policy is threatened from many angles, including Russia and the fragile, failing states of the Middle East and Africa. Other risks include terrorism, hybrid conflict resolutions, economic instability, climate change and energy supply.

Commission pushes for stronger defence, trade and border powers after Brexit

The European Commission has said it could accept reduced responsibility for some policy areas, but only in return for greatly strengthened powers over defence, border control, migration, counter-terrorism and trade.

Can the Defence Union bring EU members closer together or will it have the opposite effect? One could argue that it is largely perceived as a German initiative, particularly in Eastern Europe.

MG: I have to disagree with that. Germany is, along with France, Poland, the Netherlands and the Baltic states, just one country to have rediscovered the idea of a Defence Union. It’s enshrined in the Lisbon Treaty after all. It is not true that Eastern European politicians are not convinced by strong European defence policy. Our Eastern and Central European partners in the European Parliament have supported the idea of the Union. A parliamentary report by my ALDE colleague, Urmas Paet, a former Estonian foreign minister, was adopted with a large majority. Even Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán spoke out in favour of it in January.

Lamassoure: 'Europe must urgently take defence into its own hands'

Donald Trump’s election marks a turning point for Europe. It is time for the EU to take defence and foreign policy into its own hands and assert its values on the world stage by bearing the torch of freedom and democracy, Alain Lamassoure told EURACTIV.com.