Weapons War

Arms and the Man

Sigmar gabriel dpa8
Sigmar Gabriel, economics minister, is a driving force in defense policy.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Germany is the world’s third-largest weapons exporter but the SPD wants to restrict exports to repressive regimes, something German industry warns could cost jobs.

  • Facts


    • In 2013 Germany exported €5.8 billion worth of arms.
    • 62 percent went to non-EU or NATO countries such as Algeria, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
    • The industry employs 98,000 people in Germany.
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The head of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, Sigmar Gabriel, has leverage over whether, how and if Germany’s defense companies can sell arms abroad.

Mr. Gabriel, the deputy chancellor and leader of  the junior partner with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, is economics minister. Since his ministry controls export licenses for weapons and other military equipment, Mr. Gabriel effectively decides where and when German defense companies can sell their wares.

Since taking over the ministry last September, Mr. Gabriel has exercised this power frequently, much to the chagrin of the country’s arms industry and members of Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats.  So much so that they are reportedly preparing a counter-attack to loosen his influence over one of the country’s most important industries.

Germany is the world’s third-biggest arms exporter after the United States and Russia. But defense companies say Mr. Gabriel’s policy could ruin the industry, leading to the loss of thousands of jobs.

That has not fazed the SPD leader. His ministry is holding up thousands of permit applications for arms exports.

In recent statements, Mr. Gabriel has said that arms sales to countries outside the European Union and the NATO alliance must be closely scrutinized.

His ministry is holding up the export of 800 Leopard 2 battle tanks to Saudi Arabia, an order that could be cancelled because of the delay.

Germany’s military role in the modern era remains highly controversial domestically, and the SPD has been vocal in trying to limit the sending of German troops and arms to conflict regions. Most objections are grounded in the long-held post-World War II German policy of blunting German military involvement.

But as trouble spots around the world multiply, Germany is being increasingly pressured by the United States and other western European nations to boosts its military role, which would require a loosening of the post-war political taboo on foreign involvement.

Mr. Gabriel has justified his cautious export policy by pointing to the fighting in Ukraine and the Middle East, where he has argued that German arms could fall into the wrong hands.  Mr. Gabriel says his restrictive policy is in tune with Germany’s non-interventionist post-war credo.

He has based his position on a set of restrictive arms export rules adopted in January 2000 by a previous coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, a traditionally pacifist political party. Those political principles governing the export of weapons and other military equipment cited human rights concerns and set a high barrier to the export of German weaponry.

According to those principles, exports outside the European Union and NATO should be the exception, and should only occur when such sales are in Germany’s security interests.

Mr. Gabriel has criticized the previous coalition of Ms. Merkel’s CDU and business friendly Free Democrats for allowing far too many exceptions to this rule.

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