If you want to know what’s on the minds of the diplomats, politicians and generals who have assembled this week at the Munich Security Conference, you should pay more attention to bar room conversations than the predictable plenary speeches. Behind the scenes, the hottest topic will be Germany’s government – or the lack of one.
With a new coalition deal still in the balance four months after the general election, never in the 50-year history of the security conference has a German government seemed so weak. At a moment when “the international order faces the abyss,” as the conference’s boss, Wolfgang Ischinger, put it, Berlin’s gaze is fixed firmly on its own navel.
The country’s political paralysis is causing palpable anxiety, according to Norbert Röttgen, the chair of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee. “In practically every conversation with foreign politicians, the first thing I’m asked is: What is going to happen in Germany?” he said.
“In security policy, Europe can no longer rely on American support.”
Germany’s president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, has been doing what he can to counteract the air of torpor and indecision. In recent weeks, as the parties skirmished in Berlin, Mr. Steinmeier traveled widely, telling allies that things in Germany will soon be back to normal. Still, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae emphasized how urgently they want to see a functioning government in Berlin.
Concern is greatest among Germany’s European neighbors. The election of France’s vigorously pro-European president, Emmanuel Macron, and the more robust performance of the European economy had raised hopes that the time was ripe to further develop the European Union, putting the problems of Brexit and the euro crisis behind it. But many European leaders now fear that Germany’s political stasis means the window of opportunity will be lost.
Events in Germany this week will not have assuaged those fears. As members of the center-left Social Democratic Party, or SPD, consider whether or not to approve a coalition deal, the party is plagued by internal fighting, and its poll ratings have plummeted to record lows. Meanwhile, a growing number of conservative politicians in Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union are outwardly expressing discontent with her leadership and the direction of the party.
All this is happening at a time of profound global uncertainty stemming from climate change, refugee crises, the rise of authoritarian powers and growing questions about US leadership in the world. To address these international issues, a functioning Germany is needed — perhaps more than ever. Instead, German leadership has been missing in action.
That may not necessarily change, even after a new government is formed. The provisional coalition agreement hammered out last week between Angela Merkel and the Social Democrats mentions Germany’s commitment to its international obligations — including NATO and its military role in the world. But the agreement included very few specifics on these issues, leaving open, for example, questions of financing.
The concerns are not just coming from abroad. One of Germany’s powerful business associations, the Federation of German Industry, has also urged political leaders to face up to the country’s international responsibilities. “As an exporting nation, Germany profits as much as anyone from international agreements, rules and cooperation,” said the federation’s president, Dieter Kempf. “Our epoch demands more cooperation, not less, particularly in the area of security,” he added. “In security policy, Europe can no longer rely on American support.”
So far, however, it’s unclear if Germany’s political leaders are willing to do much to boost defense spending. The new coalition agreement largely sticks to the old defense budget, agreed last summer, plus an additional €1 billion ($1.25 billion) by 2021. This, however, will not be enough to raise Germany’s current level of defense spending in relative terms to its GDP, which falls far short of the NATO target of 2 percent of GDP by 2024. According to Hans-Peter Bartels, the parliamentary commissioner for the armed forces, new weapons systems and increased manpower would require €10 to €12 billion in extra spending, on top of the current budget of €37 billion.
Meanwhile, in Munich this week, American officials are continuing to apply pressure on Germany to beef up its military spending. “We continue to insist on the 2 percent goal,” said a US diplomat.
Moritz Koch was Handelsblatt’s Washington correspondent from 2013 to 2017. Since 2017, he has been a political editor in Berlin. Torsten Riecke is Handelsblatt’s international correspondent. Donata Riedel covers economic policy for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com