Ahead of the 2017 German federal elections, scheduled for 24 September, we are previewing some of the key issues at stake. Lars Miethke provides a comprehensive primer on the role of defence policy in the campaign, and how each of the country’s main parties view Germany’s future on the international stage.

Credit: NATO (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Angela Merkel’s commitment to increase Germany’s defence budget to 2 per cent of GDP, in line with NATO’s spending pledge, has become one of the most prominent campaign issues ahead of the country’s federal elections on 24 September. For those unfamiliar with the German political landscape, this debate provides an interesting lesson on the cultural intricacies of German politics.

Unlike in other countries, the securitisation of politics has won few votes in the past with the German electorate. In fact, it often seems that the less candidates talk about the Bundeswehr (Germany’s armed forces) the better. The announcement by Merkel’s CDU/CSU can therefore not only be interpreted as a sign of strength (her party leads the national polls by a double-digit margin) but also as a response to repeated calls from Germany’s allies to increase military spending. Germany’s allies might do well to follow the campaign closely because it will have a significant impact on the Bundeswehr’s future capabilities and readiness to support multilateral missions.

The country’s six main political parties have now publicly presented their campaign manifestos and the election campaign is in full-swing. In their manifestos, each party has outlined how they view Germany’s future in relation to the UN, NATO, the EU’s Common Security & Defence Policy, and the Bundeswehr’s ongoing deployments. More so than in recent campaigns, even the mainstream parties have diverged on key questions such as the defence budget, equipment procurement, and how to handle important bilateral relationships, such as those with Russia and the United States.

Current polls indicate that the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD) are likely to receive the highest number of votes. The Greens and the liberal FDP are fighting for the votes of moderates, while the far-left Die Linke and the far-right Alternative for Germany (AdD) are attempting to outdo each other in a race to capture the anti-establishment vote. While all candidates avoid discussing potential coalition agreements prior to the election, a renewed grand coalition between the SPD and CDU/CSU or a coalition between the CDU/CSU and the FDP are considered likely outcomes by many political analysts.

Although some of the parties have not positioned themselves on all defence policy questions, there are at least five key defence issues that have a high level of relevance for the election and for Germany’s allies in Europe and beyond. These are EU defence cooperation, relations with the United States, Germany’s participation in NATO, relations with Russia, and the debates over defence spending and the role of the Bundeswehr. Each topic is considered below.

European Union defence cooperation

The country’s mainstream parties – the CDU, SPD, FDP, and the Greens – strongly support the subsequent deepening of the EU’s Common Security & Defence Policy and increasingly close collaboration with EU member states on defence & security. However, the far left and right-wing of the political spectrum strictly oppose EU cooperation. For the far-right AFD, this represents the natural extension of their Eurosceptic raison d’être, while for Die Linke, the opposition to further EU cooperation is simply driven by the party’s inherent pacifist policies rather than by a preference for alternatives.

The United States

The US would have hardly required mentioning in any previous election campaign. But the Trump administration’s back-and-forth on its commitment to NATO, among many other important international agreements, is cause for concern for Germany’s political leadership as well as its electorate. Hence, the United States has found its way into the foreign and defence policy campaign agenda of all parties for this year’s election.

All of the parties have emphasised the need to reaffirm Germany’s close partnership with the United States (or to paraphrase the SPD’s manifesto: ‘outside of Europe, the US remains Germany’s closest partner, regardless of its leadership’). The US has also indirectly affected the foreign and defence policy agenda of the German election campaign. All mainstream parties now explicitly call for a Europeanisation of Germany’s foreign and security policies: a clear reflection of the unease surrounding the historic American security guarantee and a decision that was made even easier with the UK vote to leave the European Union.

NATO

All parties except Die Linke also support Germany’s NATO membership and strongly commit to the alliance’s founding articles. Nevertheless, the AfD has demanded the exclusion of Turkey from NATO. It is unclear whether this policy suggestion is driven by the far-right party’s inherent anti-Muslim agenda or a sensible foreign policy position based on recent political tensions between the German government and President Erdogan over the visitation rights of German parliamentarians to the Incirlik NATO air base. While the Turkish-German dispute in and of itself is an issue of relevance for any new German government, the importance, efficacy, and role of NATO itself is not questioned by any of the main political parties.

Russia

Among the most interesting security-related topics is Germany’s difficult relationship with Russia. Tellingly, all parties have mentioned Europe’s largest eastern neighbour. The Greens have openly labelled today’s Russia as a threat to European peace and stability. Meanwhile Die Linke’s agenda goes as far as to suggest a security alliance with Russia to encourage mutual disarmament. The SPD and CDU have condemned Russia’s military presence in Ukraine and demanded a continued sanction regime that leaves room for incentives if progress is made in the peace negotiations. Finally, the head of the FDP recently made headlines by suggesting there should be an attempt to isolate the dispute over the annexation of Crimea and to move on with a renewed European-Russian relationship.

The defence budget and the role of the Bundeswehr

Interestingly, no party manifesto has voiced strong positions on current Bundeswehr deployments, apart from Die Linke’s stance to withdraw from all deployments and dismantle the armed forces entirely. However, the discussion around the defence budget gained momentum following Merkel’s announcement on meeting the 2 per cent target, a goal vehemently opposed by the Greens and the Social Democrats. The CDU/CSU, however, defends its position as a reaction to repeated calls by Germany’s European and transatlantic allies to raise its defence spending, which has decreased to about 1.2 per cent of GDP since the fall of the Berlin Wall.

It is important to keep in mind that any of the above positions are subject to change during the inevitable coalition negotiations and that various other related topics, such as weapon export regulations, equipment procurement, and international aid will likely be part of any compromise struck between a new governing coalition. However, if one trusts the polls, the future of Germany’s defence policy is set to be a modernised Bundeswehr, increased cooperation with European neighbours, and a continued commitment to being a reliable partner in multinational deployments. The more pertinent questions which remain unanswered lie in the realm of diplomacy: how to re-engage with Russia, resolve the spat with fellow NATO member Turkey, and cooperate with the current US administration. These questions will be the real challenge for the next German Bundestag.

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Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.

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About the author

Lars Miethke – LSE
Lars Miethke is a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics. His research interests include European foreign and defence policies, and the future of sovereignty.

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