German political leaders poured cold water over President Macron’s comments about NATO and a possible rapprochement with Russia. Instead, they reinforced German security guarantees, in particular for the Central and Eastern European countries on NATO’s Eastern Flank. With a potential revival of the Weimar Triangle that could also include consultation on defence and security matters, Berlin ought to follow words by more ambitious deeds underpinned by a broader strategy.
In November of last year, French President Emanuel Macron rocked the NATO boat with his “brain-dead” diagnosis pronounced in his interview for The Economist. Among the many reactions his statements provoked, the German one was unexpectedly unequivocal and steadfast in light of Berlin’s notorious lack of direction and lacklustre attitude to defence.
Several senior German politicians not only highlighted the primacy of NATO as a European security framework and the need for more German burden-sharing but also cautioned against Macron’s enthusiasm for rapprochement with Russia.
Having now visited Warsaw, after working around Poland for the past three years of his presidency, Macron raised the prospect of reviving the Weimar Triangle, which also includes Germany. Leaving aside numerous failed past attempts to breathe political life into this format as well as more domestic EU issues it could address, the question remains whether today’s Germany can make a reliable partner for Poland (and by extension the other eastern flank countries) in security matters.
A reassuring sound
A clear response to from Berlin about its commitments might initially sound reassuring to its Eastern allies. Even prior to Macron’s controversial statements, German Defence Minister and CDU leader (up until the announcement of her resignation the heir apparent to Angela Merkel) Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (or AKK) publicly called for greater German defence efforts and stronger involvement in European and global security challenges. She also announced that the complementarity of European defence efforts, not their competition with NATO structures, will be a central topic of the upcoming German EU presidency in the second half of 2020.
AKK explicitly reiterated this German standpoint in the aftermath of Macron’s remarks. This was reinforced by Chancellor Merkel stating her disapproval of Macron’s views and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, from the traditionally more Russia-friendly social democrats, noted that while he agreed with Macron on the need for European countries to do more on defence, this ought to take place within NATO:
“And when Europe is one day able to defend its own security, we should still want NATO. We do want a strong and sovereign Europe. But we need it as part of a strong NATO, and not as a substitute.”
Overall, such remarks reflect broader security policy trends in Berlin. While maintaining EU unity on sanctions against Russia, there’s growing realisation in Berlin that attempts at rapprochement with Russia are currently an “illusion” – and doing so at the same time as attempting to de-couple Europe and the US go against German perceptions of NATO as the primary security framework in Europe. The Germans are also becoming increasingly aware that the growing frustration in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) about both Paris and Berlin, combined with growing US (re)engagement in the region, may have a significant impact on European unity.
Attempts at strengthening engagement with the countries of CEE are epitomised in the new Ostpolitik championed by Foreign Minister Maas. It includes strengthened economic cooperation with the region, which led to German participation the Three Seas Initiative and aims at enhancing coordination and building of consensus on Russia vis-à-vis the countries on NATO’s eastern flank.
In the context of President Macron’s statements, the German foreign minister reinforced this and, perhaps most importantly, emphasised Germany’s security guarantees to the countries on the eastern flank:
“we must not divide the Europeans on security matters. Germany will not tolerate any special arrangements, not vis-à-vis Moscow and not on any other matters. Our neighbours in Poland and the Baltic can trust us to take their security needs as seriously as we take our own. The Europe that we need cannot successfully take shape if they are not consulted.”
One key problem, however, as AKK admitted herself, is that “we [Germany] have never had a problem of insight. What we have are difficulties with its implementation.”
As important as all these declarations are, they need to be seen in the context of German public opinion which paints a contrasting picture: 41 per cent of Germans express a desire for more cooperation with the US by contrast to 69 per cent who want more relations with Russia. At the same time, 72 per cent of Germans want more foreign policy independence from the US, but only 43 per cent want more defence spending.
AKK rightly pointed out that discussions about security and defence challenges “win no popularity contests” and there is a need for a “weaning” period when it comes to engaging the German public on country playing a more active role in security and defence.
Nevertheless, with a 25 per cent real-term increase in defence spending since 2014, Germany has raised its defence budget faster than either France or the UK. In fact, Germany is currently spending more on defence than the far more active France. While maintaining the second largest ISAF contingent in Afghanistan, on the eastern flank, Germany leads NATO’s enhanced Forward Presence (eFP) in Lithuania.
Since September 2019, NATO Joint Support and Enabling Command in Ulm has been operational to assist in the movement of troops and equipment across Europe. Germany is also currently working on establishing the Baltic Maritime Component Command (BMCC) which, in the event of a crisis, can provide command and control for NATO maritime operations in the Baltic Sea.
Below the barrier
Yet, despite commitments to NATO, Germany is unlikely to spend more than 1.5 per cent of its GDP by 2024 and is unlikely to reach the two per cent barrier until 2031 – by when, according to AKK, Germany should aim to provide 10 per cent of all NATO’s military capabilities. And even while overtaking France in defence spending, there are few visible signs that Germany is being a more capable military power than its western neighbour, as RUSI’s Malcolm Chalmer argues.
In real terms, the much-publicised issues with procurement (the next generation of fighter planes to replace the Eurofighter will not likely enter service until after 2040), recruitment and excessive red tape mean the armed forces are under-performing and, as a result, Germany remains ‘the weakest military power among Europe’s largest countries despite having the strongest economy’.
By contrast, the US has been strengthening its commitments namely by beefing up the European Deterrence Initiative with additional troops and equipment, and through increased military exercises such as the upcoming Defender2020. At the Munich Security Conference, Secretary of State Pompeo also announced a US commitment to investing one billion dollars into Central Europe’s energy security via the Three Seas Initiative.
Complicating things further, AKK announced to step down as party leader and not to seek CDU’s nomination as their candidate for Chancellor in the next federal elections. Even though Merkel asked her to remain in her post as defence minister, this effectively renders AKK a lame duck and more broadly paralyses German politics until the next elections.
With four candidates vying for CDU leadership, the question remains in how far even a more determined and activist candidate like Norbert Röttgen, chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, could achieve the necessary changes given the deeper structural problems of German foreign and security policy summarised so well by Jan Techau in 2017.
Germany lacks a coherent broad strategic vision and avoids hard choices. This goes so far that close allies suspect duplicitous behaviour and nefarious ulterior motives where there is mostly a lack of direction and political will. This is also evident in the internal contradictions of Berlin’s ‘new’ Ostpolitik with its lack of specific proposals and dithering on Russia. Germany’s participation in the Three Seas Initiative and its continued support for Nord Stream 2 can be seen as emblematic of these problems.
Given the broader deterioration of the security environment around Europe, including the continued ‘hot breath of the Russian bear’ (to use the Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki’s words) and the continued build-up of forces in the Russian Western Military District, the need for additional mechanised brigades to assist in the territorial defence of the eastern flank is one area where German leadership ought to back the foreign minister’s guarantees with concrete capabilities.
In this respect, both the German response to President Macron as well as the broader debate about the countries’ defence budget and capabilities cannot remain a mere ad hoc political discussion (as was once again demonstrated at the Munich Security Conference) but must be backed by a broader strategy that drives Germany’s solidarity with allies on the eastern flank (and beyond).
Thus, Germany’s response to President Macron’s statements on NATO and rapprochement with Russia shows that German political leaders want to prevent any East-West rifts by seeking more consensual politics and playing greater attention to the CEE countries on NATO’s eastern flank. In this regard, at least, President Macron provided the CEE countries with a rather unexpected gift.
But consensual politics must not become a by-word for doing nothing. The CEE countries themselves ought to use the opportunity to pro-actively engage with Germany on the issue as well as with France. The possible revival of the Weimar Triangle could provide such a forum for Poland to take the initiative.
More pressingly, Germany needs a strategic vision and a more clearly defined foreign policy that can drive the development, and crucially also the deployment of its capacities. In other words, to ensure that words are followed by deeds in terms of Germany’s role in the defence of the eastern flank and, thus in addressing some of the most pressing security challenges facing the European allies today.
Dr Igor Merheim-Eyre and Dr Łukasz Janulewicz are Research Fellows at the Global Europe Centre at the University of Kent.