Germany can no longer avoid its responsibility to European defense

Alexandre Robinet-Borgomano is head of the Germany program at Institut Montaigne.

The United States is pivoting toward Asia, and, strikingly, Europe doesn’t have a seat at the table. From the Afghanistan withdrawal to the recent AUKUS military alliance, the U.S. has confirmed its willingness to redeploy its efforts toward containing China’s ambitions. And despite Sunday’s looming election, Germany has yet to define its role within this new geopolitical configuration.

The future of European defense depends on the next German chancellor. And yet, while this should be the issue of the hour, geopolitics is missing from the German political conversation. Ahead of the election, it was not really a subject of in-depth debate between any of the candidates for the German chancellery, even the two front-runners — Christian Democrat Armin Laschet and Social Democrat Olaf Scholz.

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Both candidates only approached the European issue through a fiscal lens. While the former wishes to return to the Stability and Growth Pact, the latter pleads for a true fiscal union and real industrial sovereignty for the EU. A similar vision is shared by the Greens, who are also likely to enter the next federal government.

This perception of a strong and economically sovereign Europe is similar to French President Emmanuel Macron’s —  but it avoids one key question: What will happen to European defense and the France-backed project of “Europe puissance”?

There has long been a taboo around power and military interventionism in modern Germany. Case in point: the resignation of President Horst Köhler in 2010, for stating that Germany should “be in a position to intervene militarily to defend its strategic interests or to contain a risk of destabilization in a given region, in particular to secure trade routes.”

The parties running for the chancellery understand this all too well. They are all in favor of a European army, yet none of them openly rallied in support of a militarily sovereign Europe during their campaigns.

Unfortunately for them, this is an issue Germany can no longer afford to ignore. When it comes to geopolitics, the Merkel-style combination of diplomatic centrism and mercantilist logic is running out of rope. It seems illusory to still think Germany can reconcile its security dependence on NATO, while getting its energy supplies from Russia and developing its export industry with the Chinese market.

Maintaining this triptych of contradictory demands without provoking the ire of at least one of the powers involved is risky at best. And with Cold-War-style military polarization taking shape in the Indo-Pacific, Germany must decide where it stands in the new geopolitical dynamic.

Merkel was more aware of this than she let on. Let’s not forget the acceleration of German military spending since 2014, which has now exceeded that of France. Or the Bayern frigate that was sent to the South China Sea in August. What else could that have been, if not a discreet military assertion in the area?

The issue has become all the more pressing after the recent establishment of the AUKUS alliance. France will undoubtedly take advantage of this opening to further push the idea of sovereign European defense — and the EU is likely to back it.

The EU foreign ministers at the U.N. General Assembly this week said they were behind France in this crisis. And despite a relatively hesitant attitude, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen also expressed her support.

These statements are significant and indicate that if there is to be polarization in international affairs, the EU will be ready to step up — but only if France and Germany work together to build a robust European defense.

The Merkel era is coming to an end.  From now on, the Franco-German alliance must grapple with the imperative of power. In a country with Germany’s history that will take political courage.

Let’s hope the new German chancellor is up for the task.



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