Schultz, Merkel at odds over defence spending ahead of elections

  • Carolin Laubre
  • 17.7.2017 09:23

The German general elections are scheduled to take place on 24 September with the main contenders being the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), led by current Chancellor Angela Merkel, and centre-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), headed by Martin Schulz. Both are pro-European Union in their views and currently form the ruling coalition. But growing geopolitical disturbance from the US, Russia and the Middle-East have divided the two parties when it comes to defence spending.

SPD: 2% defence spending nonsensical

On 21 June, the German parliament’s budget committee postponed a decision on a one-billion-euro funding package for the military, including the lease of Heron TP drones from Israel Aerospace Industries. One of the reasons given for the delay was the centre-left Social Democracy Party (SPD) demanding more time for consultations. The SPD further also blocked another procurement deal with Israel, which altogether signals their long-running distain to armament. While the committee eventually did approve military acquisitions worth 11 billion euros, Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen (CDU) stressed that such delays could stall military modernisation after years of post-Cold War cuts, especially now when Germany has promised to take on more military responsibilities within the EU. The attempts of the SPD to push the one-billion-euro funding package delay past the election date serves to distinguish the party from the CDU, as there are not many stark differences between the current coalition partners.


“The 2% would mean doubling Germany’s spending to unrealistic 70 billion euros, more than all other European countries as well as Russia." 


The new leader of the SPD, Martin Schulz, has continuously stated that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) recommended defence expenditure of 2% of the gross domestic product won’t “most definitely happen” under his lead. Furthermore, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel (SPD) has claimed the benchmark as “nonsensical”. Schulz claims the 2% would mean doubling Germany’s spending to unrealistic 70 billion euros, more than all other European countries as well as Russia. However, some claim this is just the Social Democrats playing on general pacifist sentiment in the society. Schulz, also the former head of the EU Parliament, insists that Germany will remain a dependable European and NATO partner, but will prioritise development, growth and investment. He has also been very critical of Chancellor Merkel’s stance towards US President Trump as not hard enough. Such calls are likely to resonate in generally pacifist society.


Slight differences

Meanwhile, Chancellor Merkel has projected herself as a force of stability in a world torn between Trump’s unilateralism and assertive Russia. In contrast to Merkel's image as Putin's main challenger, the SPD called for more dialogue with Moscow and some of its members even argued for an end to sanctions. Nevertheless, the Social Democrats are unlikely to change dramatically the overall Germany's position towards Russia. In relation to the Nord Stream 2 pipeline (NS2) – the current focal point of Russo-German relations – both parties somewhat converge. Chancellor Merkel supports the new pipeline, but the CDU is not united on the topic - unlike the SPD, whose former Chancellor Schröder chairs the NS2 board. While not in a dire contrast, the seemingly minor differences in their Russia policy would only amplify once the two parties leave their coalition.

One thing that both parties agree upon is a strong European Union and more importantly a strong Franco-German alliance. And similarities can be found even in defence spending. The CDU-led government increased the defence budget by 8% to about 37 billion euros, yet it remains at 1.2% – significantly short of the NATO’s pledge to reach 2% by 2024. Merkel does maintain her stance on honouring the international commitment as agreed at the 2014 Wales Summit, but she has equally highlighted the need for development, not just armament, as Germany also allocates 0.7% of GDP into development aid, with a strong focus on industrial links to Africa. The 0.7% is also the UN Millenium goal set in 1970 that only five other countries reach. Development commitments is where the parties also strongly converge.


“After recent tumultuous, high-stakes elections across Europe the German elections won’t have as dramatic consequences.”


Unexciting elections

According to the weekly Emnid poll, the CDU maintains its strong support at 39% with the SPD falling behind to 24%. Schulz’s entry into the race came as a welcomed surprise to a lot of people who wanted a change after 12 years of Merkel’s rule. However, it wasn’t enough, considering the SPD lost in three regional elections, one of them being North Rhine-Westphalia – the most populous German state. The momentum seems to be on the CDU’s side.

After recent tumultuous, high-stakes elections across Europe the German elections won’t have as dramatic consequences since the CDU and the SPD both have overlapping pro-EU foreign policy visions. The SPD standing directly against the 2% defence spending benchmark doesn’t change much either in the near future, as Chancellor Merkel also remains rather reserved about it - stressing the need for development. In terms of security, it is very hard for the SPD and Schulz to set themselves apart from the similar direction of the CDU and Merkel.

About author: Carolin Laubre


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