President Donald Trump has been blunt with his demands on German defense spending, accusing Berlin of owing “billions.” Germany’s Social Democrats have just as clear a message: It’s not going to happen.
Navigating a series of diplomatic dust-ups over the issue, Chancellor Angela Merkel has stood by a NATO-sponsored target of spending 2 percent of gross domestic product on the military, even if it takes longer to get there than the U.S. wants.
But officials in the Social Democratic Party, which controls the Finance Ministry and has been Merkel’s junior coalition partner for nine of the last 14 years, are unequivocal — saying the 2 percent goal is an arbitrary distraction that they have no intention of attaining. Unless Merkel’s government falls, the SPD will be in power at least until the next election due in 2021.
“It’s a non-starter and we don’t want it,” Carsten Schneider, the SPD’s parliamentary whip in the lower house, said in an interview in Erfurt, Germany this week. The 2 percent goal would amount to doubling defense spending, he said, adding: “We’re not going to follow Trump’s weapons fetishism.”
The SPD’s roadblock reflects a political reality in Germany that has the potential to move defense to the top of the list of grievances harrying trans-Atlantic relations. These include a painful trade dispute, Germany’s balking at a ban on China’s Huawei Technologies Co. and Merkel’s support for a Baltic Sea pipeline to Russia that the U.S. frowns upon. Last July Trump upended a NATO summit, singling out Germany among European allies needing to boost spending immediately.
A flare-up over the issue in March led to calls in some quarters to expel the U.S. ambassador in Berlin, Richard Grenell, after he blasted a draft budget that projected diminishing military spending. The diplomat called the draft a “worrisome signal.”
U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo will visit Berlin on Tuesday, a government spokeswoman said Friday, and will hold talks with both Merkel and Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, an SPD member.
The SPD cites broad public skepticism about large-scale armament in a country that’s nurtured a pacifist culture in the seven decades since World War II. Under candidate Martin Schulz, the party campaigned against the NATO target in the 2017 election. Despite growing U.S. pressure, the SPD is holding its ground.
“It’s not worth dealing with fully unrealistic numbers,” Nils Schmid, an SPD lawmaker on the Lower House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in an interview. While Germany must lift spending, “I think this fixation on this number is wrong,” he said.
Polls show there is no public appetite to channel tens of billions of euros away from social programs to weapons, SPD politicians maintain. Some 59 percent of Germans oppose a significant defense-budget expansion, while 27 percent back such an increase, according to a YouGov survey published by Handelsblatt April 4.
Yet international pressure and the need maintain the preparedness of the armed forces will eventually force Germany to meet the NATO benchmark, officials from Merkel’s Christian Democratic-led bloc say. Johann Wadephul, a deputy chairman of Merkel’s parliamentary group in charge of foreign and defense policy, said Germany’s military urgently needs investment, including in transport, and in a new generation of submarines.
“Germany has a global obligation to take responsibility,” Wadephul said in an interview. “This is a very difficult debate we’re going to have.”
Former President Barack Obama made the point repeatedly, if less abrasively than his successor. Other European NATO member states have made the same demand, citing a growing threat from Russia on the alliance’s eastern flank.
Germany plans to boost spending to 1.37 percent of GDP next year, compared with 1.19 percent in 2016, but the draft budget produced by Finance Minister Olaf Scholz in March showed the figures trailing off after that. Scholz is a front-runner to be the SPD’s chancellor candidate in the next election.
Merkel dismissed the near-term number crunching, saying that her government aims to spend 1.5 percent of GDP on defense by mid-decade and then move toward the NATO benchmark. Still, she recognized the delicate stance.
“That’s not enough for the U.S. president, I can understand that,” Merkel said in a March 19 discussion with John Micklethwait, editor-in-chief of Bloomberg News, in Berlin. Germany’s contribution to global peacekeeping and aid missions should be taken into account, she added.