Why Germany’s newest attempt at a European Army is bound to fail: And how it might work, after all.

Germany has long considered itself the motor of Europe. As the continent’s most populous and most powerful economy, Germany has come out of the 2008 financial crisis as the dominant force in Europe. This dominance, however, is mostly economic – despite its population, the German armed forces today are a far cry from the German armies that attempted to dominate Europe in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Despite slowly increasing foreign deployments, the Bundeswehr’s budget hasn’t even increased enough to keep up with inflation in recent years. German public sentiment remains largely pacifist, and without the threat of the red tide at the borders, it has become nearly impossible to justify budget-increases for an army without a real enemy.

Surrounded by friendly states, German decision-makers such as current Minister of Defense, Thomas De Maizière have been looking to redefine German security in a pan-European context. One of the most popular concepts for this is the establishment of a joint European Army. Since it has become nearly impossible for German politicians to imagine a scenario in which the German army would deploy outside of a more or less collective European mission, wouldn’t it make sense to combine forces, reduce redundancies and increase efficiency?

This is of course far from a new idea: As far back as 1950, a demilitarized Germany pushed for the establishment of a pan-European defense force. Germany was even able to convince the Italians and the Benelux states to join a “European Defence Community”. Of course there can be little doubt that the notion of a Germany lacking a sovereign army was a very appealing thought when memories of the war were still fresh. However, France feared the loss of national sovereignty more than a potentially resurgent Germany, and killed the project. Germany was forced to rely on a national army after all.

Sixty-three years after the failed EDC, Germany is promoting a regional security concept again. This time, however, Germany’s approach is different, and its immediate goals appear more limited. Germany wants to establish NATO-“nation groups”, individual groups of EU-states whose military capacities would be pooled and whose procurement would be harmonized, alongside increased joint training and doctrines. The end effect would effectively be joint European armies.

Such a concept has a lot going for it: Europe’s armies, while exceeding the US in total manpower, are too fragmented to muster anywhere near the fire power of the US military. The need for independent operational capability spawns near infinite redundancies, while individual procurement contracts are generally too small to support truly high-end projects. Furthermore, different doctrines and requirements wreak havoc on the few multi-national projects that do exist. Each army orders slightly different versions of the same weapons systems, causing unnecessary delays and cost overruns while undoing any theoretical benefits due to increased economy of scale. If the European states were in fact able to harmonize doctrines and procurements, their collective capabilities would increase; while at the same time reducing redundancies and increasing Europe’s international punching power.

Nevertheless, there is resistance to the concept in Europe. Many critics are the usual suspects of EU-skeptics still engulfed in the old world’s traditional tribalism. However, it is not only nationalists that are uncertain about these plans. Even supporters of the European dream appear to be uncertain about joining one of Germany’s “nation-groups”. Ironically, the greatest flaw European critics see in these plans appears to be the participation of the idea’s greatest advocate: Germany.

Now, hearing this, one might understandably be tempted to think this is out of fear of German dominance in Europe – Germany does, after all, already dominate the EU economically, on the face of it, domination is a reasonable fear. Yet this could not be any further from the truth. Rather than fear a more militarily powerful Germany, the country’s European and trans-Atlantic allies continuously call for Germany to increase its military capabilities and international participation.

Germany is no longer the bogeyman of Europe. While some of the weaker countries are concerned by Germany’s seemingly unstoppable economy, none of Germany’s neighbors fear physical invasion or aggression. Rather, it is Germany’s constant unwillingness and hesitance to become militarily active that makes its neighbors think twice before cooperating with them. Germany has become lazy. As powerful as it may potentially be, Germany’s current strategic culture is marked by extreme restraint and an unwillingness to risk its soldiers’ lives. Forty-five years of American occupation and unconditional protection have left a mark on Germany. Germany has forgotten that security isn’t free.

The Bundeswehr rules of engagement in Afghanistan are stricter than ISAF standards and German High Command refuses to send its soldiers on “Taliban-Hunts”. Instead, “combat” troops are forced to patrol in heavily armored cars and ordered to “break through” or “retreat” when ambushed. Search and destroy missions or offensives are a major taboo, as they increase the risk of casualties. Artillery support is predominantly limited to smoke screens. Too great is the fear of the domestic political damage of dead German soldiers and collateral damage.

When the United Nations convened to vote on the military intervention in Libya in 2011, Germany voted alongside Russia and China for domestic reasons. No matter how they tried to spin it in hindsight, the Merkel government placed a state election over alliance loyalty. Similarly, when there was talk of intervention in the ongoing Syrian civil war, Germany was one of the first to condemn it, placing itself in direct opposition to the French. With this kind of a track record, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that Germany’s European allies are hesitant to bind themselves to it. While few European countries could ever be accused of being bellicose, most of them are nevertheless much more active international security players. Almost all of Germany’s most likely “nation-group” partners – the Danes, the Dutch and the Belgians – are more likely to participate in international missions than the Germans. Thus it is a serious question of concern whether they should tether themselves to a passive and unreliable partner, thereby risking paralysis when the Germans inevitably veto, or at the very least delay, the deployment of German troops and equipment.

There have already been the first penalties for Germany’s behavior: Recently, France announced the dissolution of the 110e régiment d’infanterie, composed of some of the most well trained and best equipped forces in the French army. This might very well spell the end of the Franco-German brigade, a first rate mechanized infantry brigade which has never actually been deployed in a bi-national combat mission in its 24-year history. Individual national battalions from the regiment have been deployed, but never in a joint Franco-German manner. In a time of financial struggle for France, it is less willing to waste its money on an expensive symbol-unit. Much to the chagrin of Germany, France sees itself forced to prioritize utility over symbolism.

Not all is lost, however. Recent developments in German politics imply that Berlin is aware of its allies’ perception of German trustworthiness. As a part of the ongoing coalition negotiations, Andreas Schockenhoff, CDU’s chief defense expert, put forward the notion of changing Germany’s constitution to allow for Bundeswehr deployments without prior parliamentary mandate. The aim is to increase Germany’s ability to participate in international missions in a timely and efficient manner. The Bundestag would, of course, maintain the ability to recall troops at any time. By putting the impetus on automatic participation, rather than passive refusal, this might very well lead to a more active Germany.

In view of this potential political paradigm shift, the Dutch 11 Luchtmobiele Brigade is the proverbial canary in the coalmine. Beginning in 2014, this elite force of Dutch infantry will be placed under German command as a part of the new German Division Schnelle Kräfte (“Division Fast Forces”). As one of only three Dutch infantry brigades, this is the Netherland’s infantry force of choice for international missions and a kind of acid test for future cooperation. Should Dutch decision-makers find themselves hamstrung by German timidity in a future crisis, it would likely spell doom for any German plans of increased cooperation in the foreseeable future.

As it stands, the very timidity of German foreign policy makes it unlikely that any of its European allies will be willing to bind its armed forces to the Bundeswehr on a fundamental level, despite benefits in other dimensions. Europe’s minor military powers are significantly more willing to use military force when deemed necessary, and as such dread the notion of being disabled by German pacifism more than they fear any kind of German military dominance. Unless German foreign policy undergoes a fundamental paradigm shift, its attempts at military cooperation and integration, no matter how well intentioned, are bound to fail. This is simply a product of Germany’s own unreliability. The historical fear that Germany will be too aggressive has been replaced by the current certainty that it is not aggressive enough.

Steffen Gaudig – MSS Student