Once again Germany is beating itself up over whether or not arms exports are the devil’s own work.
Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s vice chancellor, economy minister and head of the center-left Social Democratic Party, started the debate when he announced he would approve fewer weapons exports to countries not in the European Union or North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Since then, he has faced accusations from his conservative coalition partners, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, that he is putting jobs in the defense industry and even national security at risk.
The arguments are familiar and the quarrel thoroughly misses the point each time it comes up. The actual problem of the defense industry is not individual export decisions by the economy minister. It is rooted in the absence of any recognizable common German and European defense policy.
Two dozen workers’ councils, bodies within German companies that officially represent employees, not trade unions, have recently written letters to Mr. Gabriel. They warn that “time is running out” for many businesses in the defense industry.
Their criticisms aren’t directed at a stricter export policy as such – in fact, that’s not even mentioned. Rather, their concern is more fundamental: It is some time now since workers’ representatives have been able to recognize a clearly defined policy. They have no basis for future planning, neither for exports, nor for the German military.
Their complaints are justified. The Defense Ministry has long been paralyzed by staff turnover and permanent restructuring. Ursula von der Leyen is the third defense minister in five years. This has led to the postponement of nearly all big military buying decisions. Airbus, for instance, has been waiting five years for a go-ahead to develop new drones.
The situation is even worse in the European Union. Germany and France suggested a “European Security and Defense Union” back in 2003, but until today no other political field has better exemplified the continent’s fragmentation. Europe currently has 14 different battle tanks; the United States, just one. Europe has 16 different combat aircraft compared to six for the United States.
Many defense firms will only survive if they look for partners, either in Germany or abroad.
But manufacturers can no longer live on their domestic market alone. After the end of the Cold War, Western nations pocketed the so-called peace dividend and radically cut their defense budgets. But they still keep their big national manufacturers artificially alive with tax money. The French aircraft maker Dassault only produces about 11 of its Rafale jets per year – which is why the cost of each jet is so enormous at €100 million ($134 million).
Because they don’t receive enough orders from their own armies, European manufacturers undercut each other in bidding for international projects. For years Dassault has scrapped with BAE System’s Eurofighter consortium, the Swedish aerospace company Saab and Airbus over a large order from India for 126 jets.
This is the backdrop to the row in Berlin over Mr. Gabriel’s arms export policy. The lax approval process in recent years was just a means to ease the pressure on industries suffering from overcapacity. But in a market economy, protection against such anomalies is not the state’s responsibility – especially not if there are deals to be struck in the Middle East that the German people don’t support.
Mr. Gabriel is right to want to deal more strictly with the export of tanks and small arms to these countries – always assuming that the companies know where they stand. The minister must come to an agreement with his cabinet quickly about which export transactions are ethically acceptable. But merely indicating that every export application is individually checked certainly falls short of the transparency required.
It is Mr. Gabriel’s responsibility as economy minister to work out a common agreement with German companies. Many defense firms will only survive if they look for partners, either in Germany or abroad. The German tank manufacturer Krauss-Maffei Wegmann is already in talks with French competitor Nexter about a merger. It should be Mr. Gabriel’s task to encourage other companies to do the same, while assuring German interests are not neglected during negotiations.
In discussions with the other E.U. countries, Berlin should lobby more vigorously for cooperation in security policy. When, if not now, is the time to close ranks? Conflicts in Russia, Syria, Iraq, Gaza and Libya are proof enough that Europe’s security cannot be taken for granted.
How we defend Europe – now that is something worth arguing about.
Till Hoppe is a Handelsblatt correspondent in Berlin. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.