28 March 2022

Is Berlin’s Overdue Defence Policy Adjustment Also a “Game Changer” for Franco-German Relations?

For many years, French policy-makers have been waiting for their German partners to eventually overcome their security and defence policy phlegm – perhaps even trauma. In fact, they had almost lost hope for Berlin’s geopolitical awakening. Being an economic giant without a security policy concept or profile seemed a very gratifying role for the German neighbour.

Indeed, no matter how drastically the geopolitical context changed and how obvious international security upheavals were, in Germany most politicians and large parts of society seemed to believe that the storm would simply pass and that, despite clear warnings from its partners, there was no need to fundamentally reconsider the course of the country’s security and defence policy. While at the 2014 Munich Security Conference, then Federal President Joachim Gauck, Federal Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Federal Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen unanimously called for Germany to increase its international engagement, the “Munich Consensus” quickly faded and German security and defence policy sank back into stagnation.

But then Russia invades Ukraine. War is back in Europe with all its brutality and ugliness. And all of a sudden, Berlin takes a clear stance and overcomes its so far persisting restraint in security and defence matters. It is announced that a lot of money will be spent in order to “show solidarity” in securing peace in Europe in the future: according to the government declaration of 27 February, the Bundeswehr (German armed forces) is to be relieved of its precarious condition and turned into an “efficient, ultra-modern and progressive” army. After many years of hesitation and waiting, Germany eventually also supports essential reforms at the EU level, which Emmanuel Macron, by the way, had already called for in 2017 in his Sorbonne speech: Berlin shows enthusiasm for the EU rapid deployment capacity, participates in the expansion of the off-budget instrument of the European Peace Facility and endorses the Strategic Compass.

What does this “paradigm shift” (Zeitenwende) – as Chancellor Olaf Scholz called the readjustment of German security and defence policy – mean for the Franco-German couple? Relations between Paris and Berlin had cooled down in recent years, particularly in relation to security and defence dossiers. Can we now expect that the ice between the two countries will melt? By no means. Even though Germany has sent a first signal that it no longer wants to close its eyes to the geopolitical realities of the 21st century, a number of touchy security and defence issues remain on the table. Three of them are examined in more detail below.

Proactivity meets phlegm

A fundamental difference between Paris and Berlin, which has in the past led to much frustration on both sides, is the divergence of policy styles in (European) security and defence matters: While Paris forges ambitious plans and acts proactively, sometimes single-handedly and disruptively, Berlin prefers a much less dynamic, preserving and consensus-oriented approach. In view of Germany’s “strategy avoidance culture”, it is not surprising that over the past three decades major impetus for the further development of security and defence at the EU level has largely come from the French partner, which is much more agile in this policy field.

Especially in recent years, there have been several key French initiatives for the advancement of European security and defence, including a European Security Council, an EU rapid reaction force, a permanent EU headquarters, a common budget for EU defence activities, the elaboration of a pan-European strategic roadmap, and an upgrading of the EU’s mutual assistance clause (see here, here, here, here, and here). But in Germany these proposals went largely unheeded, or were even spurned.

In Berlin, people felt annoyed and were also overwhelmed by Macron’s advances. In Paris, on the other hand, there was a growing realisation and frustration that Germany was not (yet) prepared to leave its security and defence comfort zone. For large sections of Germany’s political class and civil society the idea that peace and security in Europe did not depend on military factors was – and apparently still is – too tempting and comfortable. Many also cling to the reassuring conviction that, in a worst case scenario, the U.S. military would stand by Germany anyway.

So instead of addressing how Berlin could significantly contribute military to preparing Europe for the security realities of the 21st century, then Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) rather undiplomatically and uncharmingly suggested to Paris in early 2019 that France should vacate its permanent UN Security Council seat in favour of European membership – a move which would then allow EU foreign policy to meet the challenges of our era. How unrealistic and unconstructive this proposal from Berlin was is plain to see in the current Ukraine war, in which the Security Council is – once again – paralysed.

Anyhow, there is great frustration in Paris over missed opportunities. French policy-makers are tired of Germany’s sleepwalking mode in security and defence matters. It is therefore not surprising that France’s former European Affairs Minister and current chairwoman of the European Parliament’s subcommittee on security and defence Nathalie Loiseau regrets with a view to the German paradigm shift that it unfortunately took a brutal war before certain European countries – namely Germany – put aside their reservations about necessary further developments of EU defence policy already expressed by Emmanuel Macron four and a half years earlier. The German wait-and-see approach thus leaves the French with a bitter aftertaste of unnecessary stalling.

Aspirations for European autonomy meet transatlantic reservations

Another conflictual dossier is the strategic orientation and institutional anchoring of enhanced European defence cooperation. France has traditionally pursued a pro-European line, even if French scepticism toward NATO gradually gives way to a certain pragmatism. This change was particularly evident under President Macron, who pushed the concept of strategic autonomy at the EU level and wanted to make European states above all capable of acting militarily – be it within the framework of the EU and/or NATO. But Macron’s proposals fell on death ears. Imagining European security and defence in terms of results, not institutions, was too new.

The reason for this is probably not only Berlin’s historically grown reticence in military matters and its adherence to the broadest possible, yet not too deep EU defence integration, but also the fact that Germany does not really dare venture out of transatlantic cover. In German political and military circles, the notions of strategic autonomy and European sovereignty cause(d) discomfort – despite the shock suffered during the Trump administration when the fragility of transatlantic security guarantees became apparent. “No matter who is in the White House, we are in this together”, then Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) proclaimed before the U.S. elections in November 2020, when another electoral victory by Donald Trump could not be ruled out. European autonomy, in contrast, was an illusion that must come to an end, she declared. Macron immediately contradicted AKK, stating that it was a dangerous misjudgement of realities to refuse to readjust and improve Europe’s position in the face of international upheaval. In the wake of the Ukraine war, AKK has admitted with a pang of guilt that Germany had completely misjudged security realities with regard to Russia.

But once the Trump era was over, people in Germany resumed old security policy patterns and gave priority to transatlantic relations. And so, in light of Germany’s recent defence policy commitment at the EU level – Berlin even affirmed its commitment to temporarily lead the new EU rapid deployment capacity – the German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was quick to clarify that “more EU” does not mean “less in the transatlantic alliance”. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

What is more, France clearly favours procuring European defence products – often with substantial French input – whereas dependence on non-EU countries – especially the U.S. – regarding military systems is not seen as a problem in Germany, even if this dependence potentially comes to the detriment of domestic production and jobs. Against this backdrop, it is quite symbolic that the first procurement measure announced under the special fund of € 100 billion envisaged for the Bundeswehr is the acquisition of U.S. F-35 fighter jets, which will enable nuclear sharing – and, at the same time, tie the Bundeswehr militarily to the U.S. for decades to come and thereby relativise, perhaps even end, some European armaments projects.

Yet, as Olaf Scholz and the German ambassador to France emphasised, Germany nonetheless wants to continue to cooperate closely with European partners on armaments issues – in particular with France. It is questionable, though, whether this appeasement message can patch up the already very strained Franco-German relations in the armaments sector. The French are increasingly losing patience with a German partner that is dragging its feet on important transnational armaments projects due to domestic political motives and a procurement system in urgent need of reform.

Desired capacity to act meets feared compulsion to act

A third aspect that has caused dissonance between France and Germany for many years is the level of expectations in relation to security and defence. In Paris – the only nuclear power in the EU since Brexit – the focus is on the army’s capacity to act and fighting strength. The changing international context is perceived as worrying, at times even threatening. The French tenor therefore is that, if Europe does not want to vanish into geopolitical obsolesce in the face of the intensifying Sino-American rivalry, it must be more determined in representing its own values and interests and boost its defence capacities. In this context, military options in conformity with international law are not ruled out in order to protect the international order and help enforce international law.

So far, this approach has met with scepticism and even rejection in Germany. Not only did German policy-makers close their eyes for a long time to both China being a systemic rival and Russia constituting a real threat – something that is in hindsight embarrassing and regrettable. Nor did they want to deviate from the historically conditioned dogma of German foreign policy, according to which diplomacy is the solution to every problem. Consequently, the diplomatic toolbox has (to date) not been expanded to include military options. The fact that peaceful conflict resolution is sometimes only rendered possible via military interventions did not gain acceptance in Berlin.

Instead, there is still a certain tendency in Germany to curtail – perhaps even to inhibit – military activity abroad. Key in this context are the tools of legalisation and proceduralisation: According to earlier draft legislation by the Bündnis 90/DIE GRÜNEN parliamentary group (see here and here), the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe is to have the final say on extraterritorial military activities. However, this procedural extra loop via the Federal Constitutional Court to scrutinise the conformity of Bundeswehr deployments with international law has significant pitfalls. First, the constitutional legality review of extraterritorial military deployments is democratically problematic for going to Karlsruhe would considerably encroach upon the mandate of the democratically legitimised Bundestag to monitor the executive branch and decide – also in light of international law norms – on the deployment of the Bundeswehr. Secondly, it is hardly feasible in practice: The necessary judicial approval would make Germany appear quite unreliable in international forums and therefore put Germany’s capacity to act and its credibility at stake: While other partners could reliably commit, Germany would have to place its engagement under reserve of both parliamentary and judicial approval. For anyone familiar with defence issues and the planning processes of NATO or the EU, for example, this proposal seems quite out of place. Indeed, if you want Germany to strive for international peace and security, you have to accept and endure that one cannot possibly resolve all international law ambiguities in the area of security and defence – just as in any other strand of external action.

Germany’s generally sceptical attitude in military matters has led to a pattern of burden-sharing in international operations that has been problematic for some time, and not only for its French partner: While in international institutions Berlin regularly advocates for the deployment of troops with a “robust mandate” – that is including combat tasks – Germany primarily provides logistical support to such operations, while other nations take on the delicate combat tasks. A high-ranking French diplomat told me in a personal conversation in spring 2019 that, internationally, the Bundeswehr rather acts as a humanitarian NGO than an army. Be this as it may,