The German government recently revealed that when German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in November that she wanted to “create a real, true European army”, she was only speaking “allegorically” — not about instituting a new military project, but merely diplomacy between European countries. Pictured: Soldiers of the Franco-German brigade, a military unit founded in 1989, jointly consisting of units from the French Army and German Army. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
“We are committed to the emergence of a European army”, German chancellor Angela Merkel pledged in January, backing a plan first launched by French president Emmanuel Macron in 2017. Merkel thus confirmed a position she had voiced in November 2018, when, speaking to the European parliament in Strasbourg, she said: “We have to look at the vision of one day creating a real, true European army.”
Members of the opposition Free Democratic Party (FDP) in the German federal parliament (Bundestag) wanted to know what was meant by the term “European army” and submitted this question to the government.
In early March 2019, Die Welt reported the answer and voiced surprised about how long it had taken the government to reply:
“The answer was obviously not easy to find…. It required an intensive coordination process between the Chancellery, Ministry of Defense and the Foreign Office. Twice the government requested an extension of the deadline before, after two and a half months, it was able to submit a wording agreed between the departments.”
The government’s eventual answer was:
“The concept of the European Army is in the opinion of the Federal Government allegorical [sinnbildlich] of the political demand for a progressive European integration in the area of security and defense and should support the implementation of the strategic goals of the Federal Government in the area of security and defense of Europe.”
So, it is allegorical. According to Merriam-Webster, allegorical means: “having hidden spiritual meaning that transcends the literal sense of a sacred text”. Thus, when Merkel said she wanted to “create a real, true European army”, she was not speaking about instituting a new military project, but merely diplomacy between European countries.
Die Welt commented:
“One could also say: The ‘real European army’ is an empty phrase. The government is not concerned with an actual common force, but with more cooperation between nationally sovereign armies. A clarification, after all.”
Why would Chancellor Merkel even start talking about a European army? Gatestone Institute asked Wilfried von Bredow, a professor emeritus at the University of Marburg who specializes in German politics and has published several books about Germany’s army, the Bundeswehr. “Actually, there is no real debate about a European army”, von Bredow said.
“Because everyone with the slightest political knowledge knows that it’s a mirage: politically, militarily and not least for constitutional reasons. Nonetheless, there are various groups who try to float this idea from time to time: On the one hand, there are simplistic Europe enthusiasts who think that everything that is labelled ‘European’ instead of ‘nationalistic’ serves the ends of progress and cosmopolitanism. Then there are simplistic budget politicians who think or hope that a European army could save a lot of money due to synergies. And finally, there are those who panic because transatlantic relations are in bad shape, and with them, NATO. That is why they want to reinforce the so-called European pillar of Western defense, to strengthen it and make it more durable. Principally, that is not a bad idea. However, the European states have only minuscule capability for joint military and strategic action.”
Indeed, many German newspaper columnists pointed out that the Bundeswehr is not in a condition that would enable it to assume more international responsibility. Dr. Alexander Will, political commentator of the daily Nordwest-Zeitung wrote:
“The key question is: How many battalions does Merkel actually have to back up all these words in the case of an emergency?… The Bundeswehr has no soldiers, their equipment has rotted. […] Tanks do not drive and planes do not fly. China, Russia and the United States can be sure: Angela Merkel’s words remain hollow, because they simply have no material basis.”
As every year in January, the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Armed Forces (Wehrbeauftragter) recently issued his report about the state of the armed forces and the soldiers’ complaints, and, as every year, it was devastating.
“The operational readiness of large equipment remained largely unsatisfactory in the year under review”, it said. The availability of “tanks, ships and aircraft ready for deployment” was sometimes “well below 50 percent of the total stock.
“A case in point is the main battle tank Leopard 2, a central weapon system of the army. The low actual availability of battle tanks ready for deployment in 2016 and 2017 could not be significantly increased in the year under review. This situation continues to have a significant impact on the training, exercises and operations of the army.
“Helicopters, as in the past year, are still in short supply. The number of actually operational helicopters – NH-90, Tiger and CH-53 — has been at a very low level for years. Indications of significant improvements are not apparent.
“Of the total stock of Euro-Fighter and Tornado combat aircraft, fewer than half of the aircraft were actually capable of flight in the year under review. The new Luftwaffe inspector himself painted a gloomy picture in the middle of the year. Lack of spare parts and delays in the approval process are the cause of the inadequate operational readiness of the fighter jets.
“A large proportion of the submarines also failed in the year under review. None of it seems to be fully operational. Serious technical defects, spare parts shortage and considerable extensions of shipyard lay times, as well as an accident, were the causes. Without a sufficient number of fully functional submarines, full training of submarine crews is not possible.
“The precarious situation of the navy, which has repeatedly been emphasized in the past, has not improved significantly in the year under review. Whole crews were literally on dry land, as several ships and boats were not available for seafaring as planned.
“The Bundeswehr had no tankers in the second half of 2018. Both marine fuel transports were not operational due to engine damage.”
“Germany’s Navy Is a Total Embarrassment” is the title of an article in the defense journal National Interest, in which John Beckner and Helmoed Heitman wrote:
“It boggles the mind that the wealthiest country in the EU cannot even afford to support a U Boat fleet of six vessels … These vessels are designed for the Baltic and due to their hydrogen fuel-cell propulsion system can stay underwater for as long as two weeks … One shudders to think how long it would take Germany to up the readiness of its tiny U Boat fleet should the Russians become more aggressive against the NATO Baltic countries.”
While the submarines, tanks and fighter jets suffer from a shortage of spare parts, the procurement of new weapon systems is apparently another major headache. “German Engineering Yields New Warship That Isn’t Fit for Sea”, the Wall Street Journal reported in January 2018. The German Navy had ordered four of these frigates, at total costs of about €3.1 billion ($3.5 billion). Even if they were technically operational, however, the ships could not be put to use because the Navy forgot to train the necessary sailors. According to a damning report by Germany’s comptroller’s office, not even the necessary training center had been built yet.
The list of failures goes on and on. One of the biggest embarrassments in recent years — reported by the international media — occurred in 2015, when, during a NATO maneuver in Norway, it was leaked that due to the notorious lack of spare parts, the missing machine gun of an armored fighting vehicle was emulated by a broomstick.
Since taking office in 2013, German Defense Minister Ursula von der Leyen has done little to alleviate the problems. The best-known projects during her tenure were kindergartens for the soldiers’ families; the procurement of flat screen television sets and mini-fridges for the barracks; the announcement of efforts to make the German army “more attractive for gay, lesbian and transgender people”; buying uniforms for pregnant soldiers, and making battle tanks suitable for pregnant soldiers.
As worthwhile as these efforts may be, they do little to address the military’s core problems. Harald Kujat, the former Chief of Staff of Germany’s military forces, summed them up in a recent radio interview:
“The citizens have to know that the politicians neglect the Bundeswehr on purpose, that it can’t fulfill its duties and that it is in a lamentable state. … We have the lowest level of operational readiness and morale among the troops since the Bundeswehr‘s inception [in 1955].”
The statement that the German military was neglected on purpose becomes clear if one recalls that in March 2019, the German government reneged on its promise to increase the defense budget and bring it closer to NATO’s guideline of spending a minimum of 2% of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on defense by 2024. On March 13, Der Spiegel reported that these plans were off the table. The defense budget will increase just enough to hold Germany’s defense spending at the current rate of 1.35% of GDP. Der Spiegel added that the purchase of badly needed equipment, such as new transport helicopters, will likely be canceled due to a lack of funding.
“NATO members clearly pledged to move toward, not away, from 2 percent by 2024,” Richard Grenell, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, told reporters after budget numbers were first floated.
“That the German government would even be considering reducing its already unacceptable commitments to military readiness is a worrisome signal to Germany’s 28 NATO allies.”
Just two days earlier, Inspector General Eberhard Zorn — Germany’s highest-ranking officer — had announced that the annual report on the combat readiness of the Bundeswehr would henceforth be kept classified “for security reasons”, a move criticized by opposition lawmakers. Tobias Lindner, a Greens Party member who serves on the budget and defense committees, said: “Apparently the readiness of the Bundeswehr is so bad that the public should not be allowed to know about it.”
Stefan Frank is a journalist and author based in Germany.