A German defense white paper has been leaked to two separate newspapers. In mid-April, Süddeutsche Zeitung (of Panama Papers fame) said it had acquired the white paper, which was titled “Security Police and the Future of the Bundeswehr.” Süddeutsche Zeitung reported that Berlin was looking to broaden the scope of military operations in Germany and potentially abroad. On May 2, the Financial Times reported it had seen a full draft of the white paper and that it advocates for the establishment of a joint European military headquarters and the sharing of military assets. According to FT, the white paper states that Germany wants Europe “to take on a greater share of the common burden” of defense from the United States.
Without a full copy of the text, it is impossible to make definitive claims about the contents of the white paper. According to FT, the paper wants European military capabilities to be “jointly planned, developed, managed, procured, and deployed.” In effect, the leaked draft says that Germany wants the formation of a European army. However, it does not lay out what members of this alliance would have to spend and who would be making the decisions.
That Germany would push for such a move is in line with a number of dynamics that have developed in recent months. The most important of these has been the U.S. putting substantial pressure on the Europeans to shoulder more of the defense burden in Europe. At the center of that conversation is NATO. Many ridiculed Donald Trump when he called NATO “obsolete” in March and said the U.S. was paying too much to the military alliance, but in that particular case Trump touched a very raw nerve.
During the Cold War, NATO’s mission was simple. A trans-Atlantic alliance is still a conceptual foundation of U.S. defense policy, but the notion that in extreme circumstances NATO will act together is ultimately an assumption. The fragmentation of the EU, the confrontation between Russia and Turkey (a NATO member), the issue of refugees and the questions it poses for the Schengen free movement zone – all these issues that have undermined the EU have also had an impact on NATO. The Germans may now be saying that NATO is not the most effective way for Europe to defend itself. The suggestion is that a new military alliance may be necessary to fix the one that isn’t working.
Germany is taking U.S. pressure seriously from a public relations viewpoint. Besides these most recent leaks, federal budget proposals in Germany for 2017 released on March 23 showed an additional 1.7 billion euros ($1.95 billion) that would be spent on defense in Germany for 2017. But even though Germany has said that it will increase defense spending, and even with a 6.8 percent planned increase for 2016, Germany still spends well below the 2 percent of GDP threshold that all NATO members are supposed to spend on their military budgets. The Germans feel the pressure from the U.S. and are responding with token measures, hoping that at least showing that they accept U.S. concerns will help maintain the relationship.
The white paper is also an important concession to France. On April 7, French President François Hollande said that France and Germany needed to agree on a shared budget for defense, because Europe could not depend on the United States to fight its battles against terrorism. France openly flouts EU budget deficit restrictions in the same way Germany ignores its minimum defense spending levels. The European Union is built around a Franco-German alliance – tying French and German interests together is no less than the fundamental issue at the core of the EU’s project.
The interests of France and Germany have been diverging. France is both a European and a Mediterranean power, and therefore is highly concerned with the threat of terrorism and developments in North Africa and the Middle East. It has been pushing for Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, to contribute to security efforts. Germany, facing cracks in the European Union, upon which its economy depends, must preserve the relationship with France to maintain unity in the European bloc. This white paper then is a concession to the French and an attempt to patch up some of the differences that have arisen between Paris and Berlin.
The timing of the leaks of this white paper are somewhat strange. Initially scheduled to be released before Britain’s June 23 referendum on whether to remain in the EU, it appears official publication of the white paper has been delayed to July. If potential voters in Britain’s EU referendum were on the fence, a report like this advocating increased military cooperation between EU members might sway them to vote for leaving. Germany and France, at least in terms of their public statements, want the U.K. to remain in the European Union, even with the bevy of compromises and conditions Prime Minister David Cameron negotiated in February.
Without delineating who must pay for what and how war is declared, a military alliance is meaningless. We have said before that the EU has a bigger population and a larger GDP than the United States, and that from the U.S. perspective, there is no reason Europe should not develop its domestic defense capability. The leak of the defense white paper from Germany is a nod to the United States that Germany feels the pressure and a nod to France that Germany hopes to smooth things over with Paris in the short term. These are the underlying issues driving this German gesture. But that is all it is at this point: a gesture.