Germany and European Security: Ready to Leave the Comfort Zone Yet?

Andrea Rotter


Andrea Rotter heads the Foreign and Security Policy Division at the Academy for Politics and Current Affairs of the Hanns Seidel Foundation (HSF) in Munich, Germany. Her research focuses on transatlantic security cooperation as well as German and European security and defense policy. Her current research projects address the evolution of Germany’s strategic culture, the transformation of NATO in the wake of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, and the link between geopolitical rivalry and space security policy.

Prior to joining HSF, she was a researcher in the Americas Research Division at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin and taught at the Chair of International Politics and Transatlantic Relations at the University of Regensburg. In 2018, she was a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and the American-German Institute (AGI) at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC. From 2018-2022, she was a member of the Young Leaders Program of the Federal Academy for Security Policy (BAKS), Berlin, and is an alumna of the International Visiting Leadership Program (U.S. Department of State) and the Manfred Wörner Seminar (GMF & German Federal Ministry of Defense). She is also a member of the extended board of WIIS (Women in International Security) Germany and heads the regional chapter in Munich.

Rotter holds a master’s degree in European-American Studies from the University of Regensburg and a bachelor’s degree in International Cultural and Business Studies from the University of Passau and Stirling, UK.

2019 will be a pivotal year for European security. NATO, the central pillar of Europe’s security architecture to date, turns 70, while the gap between the United States and European allies seems to be widening. The United Kingdom, ahead of France Europe’s most potent military actor, is set to leave the European Union in March 2019, while the future arrangement of security cooperation between Brussels and London remains unclear. And in May 2019, analysts fear a surge of euroskeptics in the upcoming European Parliament election, thereby possibly impeding necessary reforms in the security and defense policy sector.

In recent years, a number of wake-up calls—President Trump’s attitude toward NATO, the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the EU, and an increasingly volatile security environment—have led to what some deem Europe’s “strategic awakening,” a process long overdue and based on the realization that Europe needs to take on more responsibility for its own security. And indeed, since 2016, we’ve seen considerable progress: the starting point was the EU’s Global Strategy (2016), which seeks to establish the EU as a credible “global security actor” with sufficient “strategic autonomy” to promote its interests and defend its values and principles. Since then, remarkable initiatives like the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the European Defense Fund (EDF), and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defense (CARD) were launched to foster cooperation, fill in capability gaps, and increase interoperability. Though this impetus seems to exceed previous attempts at transforming the EU into a more capable actor, several obstacles still hamper progress: Differences in strategic culture, disputes about the notion of strategic autonomy and the rise of nationalist populism within the member states, and seeking the repatriation of competences rather than a deepening of EU integration put future reform efforts on shaky ground. Due to their relative economic and military weight, which will increase once the UK has left the EU, France and Germany have to be at the center of efforts to increase European autonomy. Currently, however, Paris and France have divergent ideas of how to lend Europe’s security and defense policy more credibility and clout. In any case, Germany as the economic powerhouse at the heart of Europe cannot afford to fall back into old patterns, but has to leave its comfort zone if European efforts are to succeed.

Strategic Autonomy: Yet to Be Defined

Since the EU’s Global Strategy set the goal of strategic autonomy, there is an ongoing debate in European capitals on what autonomy is actually supposed to mean. A German think tank recently attempted to clarify the concept and defined it as both the ability to make foreign and security policy-related decisions and the capability to implement these decisions either in cooperation with others or independently. Yet even under this working definition, opinions diverge as to what level of ambition Europe should have or what adjustments on the political, operational, and industrial level would be necessary. For France, maintaining a high degree of autonomy has always been part of its foreign policy rationale and thus Paris’ reform plans aim at an ambitious notion of European sovereignty, whereas Germany struggles with how to deal with the changing parameters of transatlantic relations due to its close postwar ties with the U.S. Eastern European states, on the other hand, for whom the U.S. remains the only credible security guarantor, are generally critical of a far-reaching interpretation of strategic autonomy as they fear that such an approach could sour relations with the U.S. “Autonomy means autonomy from someone—it’s better to use another term, such as a European push forward or European structural strengthening,” remarks Lithuanian defense minister Raimundas Karoblis, underlining Eastern Europeans’ concerns about possibly jeopardizing Washington’s commitment.

“Autonomy means autonomy from someone—it’s better to use another term, such as a European push forward or European structural strengthening.”
– Raimundas Karoblis

In addition to that, the skepticism toward Europe’s new initiatives made its way across the Atlantic as the United States wagged an admonishing finger at Brussels. In accord with Madeleine Albright’s famous “three Ds” the Trump administration warned against any reform plans which might de-link European security policy from NATO, unnecessarily duplicate existing efforts, or discriminate against the U.S. Although access to EDF-funded projects is restricted for third states and thus might strain defense-industrial ties between the U.S. and the EU, there is no intention (or realistic chance) that European initiatives could challenge NATO capabilities anytime soon. While European officials never tire of emphasizing the complementarity of all efforts with NATO capabilities and structures, the debate exemplifies the enormous challenge for the EU: to achieve a commonly accepted and realistic notion of strategic autonomy within the EU 27 that is sufficient enough to provide for more European sovereignty without alienating the U.S. This is not an easy task and won’t happen overnight, but intricate negotiation processes have been inherent in the EU’s nature since its very beginning. As in the past, Franco-German leadership is necessary to reconcile the various interests of the EU member states. First and foremost, however, Paris and Berlin will have to overcome their different views on how to effectively boost Europe’s international role.

France’s Frustration with Germany

At the outset, the Franco-German engine indeed set the pace for progress in Europe’s security and defense policy. As Nicole Koenig and Marie Walter-Franke point out, recent threats to European security have led to a certain degree of “strategic convergence between France and Germany.” Shortly after the Brexit referendum, France’s and Germany’s foreign ministers jointly called for steps to strengthen the EU as a European Security Union. In 2017, Angela Merkel and newly-elected French president Emmanuel Macron sent a strong message for closer Franco-German cooperation as they announced plans to develop common capabilities. From a French perspective, however, the honeymoon phase didn’t last long as Macron’s ambitious reform vision for Europe, which he presented in his Sorbonne Speech in 2017, was met with polite reticence from Berlin. The more initiatives to boost Europe’s security role advanced, the more obvious became differences in strategic thinking between Germany and France. Given their diverging strategic cultures, German and French ideas on how to best achieve more autonomy vary considerably, as was showcased in the debates surrounding PESCO. While Germany favored an inclusive concept of PESCO without too ambitious entry criteria or commitments, France preferred a more exclusive model based on a state’s actual capabilities to increase Europe’s operative efficiency.

Given their diverging strategic cultures, German and French ideas on how to best achieve more autonomy vary considerably.

In the end, Germany’s integrationist approach to a Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) prevailed. PESCO was launched in December 2017 as a first set of 17 projects was adopted by the Council of the European Union. In November 2018, the 25 participating countries announced 17 additional joint projects. On paper, PESCO could be considered a milestone in European efforts to boost security and defense cooperation as it provides a legal framework to increase defense investment and develop capabilities. Yet at this stage, it is unlikely that PESCO will serve as a remedy for Europe’s capability and operational shortcomings. On the one side, it is one thing to launch a project. To deliver the desired results is another matter and requires considerable political will in the years to come. On the other, PESCO projects have to move beyond symbolic value. Rather than representing the lowest common denominator among the participating states, PESCO projects have to aim at closing critical capability gaps such as air-to-air refueling or strategic airlift, which thus far remain unaddressed.

Moreover, France’s frustration with Germany’s integration-focused approach to CSDP resulted in Paris announcing an exclusive, more operations-focused European Intervention Initiative (EI2) outside EU structures. For Paris, EI2 aims to facilitate the sharing of intelligence and operational know-how to ultimately provide for a common strategic culture in favor of a robust international security role while offering a way to uphold close security ties with post-Brexit UK. Berlin, in turn, fears that this durable coalition of the willing might undermine the PESCO project and thus joined the endeavor only reluctantly and after considerable negotiations that changed the nature of the initiative altogether. Rather than establishing an intervention force outside EU and NATO structures, EI2 will represent “a military-to-military strategic workshop” of countries Paris considers both willing and able to contribute to the initiative. Although EI2 shall be closely linked with PESCO to prevent any fragmentation of the EU or duplication of efforts, disagreement on how to proceed in Europe’s quest for more autonomy ultimately resulted in the creation of two hitherto insufficient, conceptually weak initiatives. For any attempts to transform the European Union into a more credible international actor to succeed, Germany and France thus will have to strike the delicate “balance between inclusiveness and ambition.” While a compromise will require concessions from both sides, Germany in particular will have to finally close the gap between its aspirations and reality.

German Expectations-Reality Mismatch

Based on rhetoric, Germany seems more open for more profound changes: Merkel in November 2018 reiterated that Europeans “must make a greater effort to take [their] destiny into [their] own hands” as she addressed the European Parliament. She called on to Europe “to work on the vision of one day establishing a proper European army,” and urged to establish a European Security Council, and to lift  the unanimity requirement in the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) whenever possible. Moreover, German foreign minister Heiko Maas recently proclaimed “Europe United” as the overarching foreign policy goal, which he defines as “a strong, sovereign Europe based on the rule of law and respect for the weak, and in the firm belief that international cooperation is not a zero-sum game”—a clear rejection of America First principles. In its first-ever America strategy, Berlin seeks a “balanced partnership with the U.S.” in which Germany aims to uphold close ties with the U.S. yet is willing to provide a “counterweight” should Washington cross any “red lines.” This bold and self-confident policy goal indicates that—at least rhetorically—Germany is slowly coming to terms with the changes in the geopolitical landscape. Berlin’s expectations, however, still don’t match reality as Germany lacks the necessary capabilities and remains prone to falling back into old patterns.

Torn Between Engagement and Comfort Zone

Already following the Munich Consensus of 2014, as German officials called for Germany to be prepared for “earlier, more decisive and more substantive engagement in the foreign and security policy sphere,” allies were hopeful that Germany would finally take on an international role that matched its economic weight. And there were indeed promising signs of a more responsible foreign policy. Alongside Paris, Berlin took a leading role in the diplomatic efforts to pacify the Ukrainian crisis. Germany also proved willing to contribute substantially to military efforts (e.g., by heading the multinational battalion in Lithuania within the framework of NATO’s Enhanced Forward Presence). To shoulder the increasing military burden (and to remedy the obvious deficiencies in equipment and operational readiness of the Bundeswehr), Berlin reversed the negative defense spending trend of the previous years after considerable domestic debate.

Considering Germany’s past and its strategic culture of military restraint, these steps can be seen in a positive light. Yet, there is still a long way to go. As one American official told me in terms of NATO’s three Cs of burden-sharing (cash, capabilities, commitments): “Germany is doing great in terms of commitments, but you can’t do without the other two.” Yet the debate in Germany seems to go around in circles. Berlin recently reaffirmed its commitment to spend 1.5 percent of its GDP on defense by 2024 and to incrementally increase military spending beyond 2024. Compared to 2014, this would signify an increase of 80 percent or more than €30 billion. Yet this is far from the 2 percent pledge the German government made in 2014. Even worse, Berlin has yet to present a plan for how it intends to achieve its self-set goal by 2024. Instead, finance minister Olaf Scholz just announced that Germany will likely face a €25 billion budget shortfall in the years to come, already causing a contentious debate within the ruling coalition on whether Germany should move toward the 1.5 percent. While it would be pointless to raise defense spending without proper planning, Germany has to offer the U.S. and European allies a plausible perspective on how it plans on closing its capability gaps if it wants to create confidence for its commitment to boost Europe’s international role. Without considerable efforts, Germany runs the risk of losing the credit it achieved based on its commitment over the last couple of years.

“German policy regarding security and responsibility is again—or rather still—dominated by old reflexes.”
– Jana Puglierin

Instead, as Jana Puglierin rightly notes, “German policy regarding security and responsibility is again—or rather still—dominated by old reflexes.” The preference to stay in the comfort zone rather than addressing the reasons why Germany needs to become more involved in international conflicts became obvious during the 2017 federal election, as the Social Democrats alongside the Greens and the Left Party rejected NATO’s 2 percent goal as part of their campaign strategy. Rather than submitting to President Trump’s erratic behavior, the argument of then-foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel went, Germany should remain a “power for peace.” Moreover, Germany’s unease to consider all instruments at its disposal to accomplish its international objectives resurged in 2018, as Berlin weighed taking military action alongside the U.S., Great Britain, and France should Syrian president Bashar al-Assad use chemical weapons again. Allies might have felt reminded of the debates surrounding the intervention in Libya in 2011 as the German government ultimately ruled out any German participation but vowed full solidarity with its partners. The old reflex of restraint is also reflected in Germany’s public opinion. When asked whether Germany should or should not use military force to defend a NATO ally in the case of a serious conflict with Russia, the majority of 53 percent of German respondents opposed the idea compared with about 40 percent who supported it. In this regard, Germans certainly have to reflect on their own reliability, a quality they ironically find lacking in President Trump.

Strategic Vacuum

Recent appeals by several leading lawmakers to not rule out military force on principle notwithstanding, many lament the persistent lack of a strategic debate in Germany on its foreign policy interests, objectives, and instruments. “Muddling through” is a common critique used to describe the short-term, crisis-driven policy pursued in Berlin. Josef Janning, for instance, cautions against “Berlin’s untenable foreign policy strategic vacuum” in which rhetoric (about Germany’s security threats or the Bundeswehr’s deficiencies) does not translate into action. This way, Janning concludes, “Germany has become a large country with the foreign policy of a small state.” The lack of strategic debate is also reflected in public opinion as a slim majority of Germans finally support the idea of increasing defense spending but still favor demonstrating restraint rather than increase Germany’s international engagement. It seems that five years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Germany still has to come to terms with a more complex security environment, in which the erosion of the liberal world order, great power rivalry, and an increasingly insecure neighborhood require decisive action rather than sitting on the sidelines.

It seems that five years after Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Germany still has to come to terms with a more complex security environment, in which the erosion of the liberal world order, great power rivalry, and an increasingly insecure neighborhood require decisive action rather than sitting on the sidelines.

Moreover, it is impossible to design a vision for Europe if Berlin cannot define its own long-term role in world politics for itself. Already in 2014, the Federal Foreign Office sought to address the strategic deficit and the lack of public debate by establishing the Review Process. Under the label “Außenpolitik Weiter Denken” (Thinking Foreign Policy Further) the Foreign Federal Office invited experts from Germany and abroad as well as the general public to several nation-wide workshops to take part in a debate on Germany’s role in international politics. A few months later, the Federal Ministry of Defense initiated a similar process in the run-up to drafting the 2016 White Paper. In its preface, Chancellor Merkel formulated the aim to “to generate a debate in society on how Germany shapes its security policy in the future.” Such hope was short-lived. The debate in society has subsided and Germany still lacks a strategic vision. A couple of reform proposals to strengthen Germany’s strategic capacity have emerged such as improving the interministerial coordination in foreign policy matters or strengthening the Federal Security Council. However, implementation of these changes have stalled. In the 2018 coalition agreement between the CDU/CSU and the SPD, enhancing Germany’s strategic capacity features prominently, yet the document does not go beyond the empty phrase of strengthening relevant actors in the strategic debate. Thus, it takes a serious strategic debate on Germany’s long-term role in international affairs which should be reignited by an institutionalized dialogue similar to the Review and White Paper Processes. The strategic debate has to be complemented by an equally frank public discourse that is not based on election cycles. Defense spending and military capabilities might be an unattractive issue on the campaign trail, yet are of essential importance in the long run.

A Closing Window of Opportunity

The momentum of European reform in the security and defense sector has not passed yet, but Europeans need to figure out what international role the EU shall play and what steps are necessary to achieve it. To transform the European Union into a more credible security and defense actor, Germany and France will have to find a common approach. The window of opportunity, however, could be closing fast. In Germany, domestic turmoil in the wake of the 2015 refugee crisis, the nationalist-populist challenge, and the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) certainly take a toll on Berlin’s scope for action with regard to European initiatives. In France, the yellow vest movement has weakened Macron’s political position in a similar manner. The recently signed Treaty of Aachen, adopted more than fifty years after the Élysée Treaty, was drafted to advance cooperation between Germany and France, establishes the Franco-German Defense and Security Council as a political steering body, and could present a chance to put the cooperation between Berlin and Paris on a more balanced footing if concrete steps are taken. This will be necessary to uphold the momentum and add further substance to the reform plans. Any tangible progress toward strategic autonomy, however, can only be successful if Germany is willing to leave its comfort zone and share all of the burdens that such a bold vision of Europe might entail.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.