Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Sunday announced a major boost to German military spending in the latest of a series of dramatic moves reversing decades of Germany’s post-Cold War foreign policy in just a few days.
Speaking at an emergency session of the German parliament to discuss Russia’s war against Ukraine, Scholz said that his government would set up a special €100 billion fund to swiftly upgrade its armed forces and that Germany will in future adhere to the NATO goal of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense.
Scholz’s remarks came just a day after Germany announced another historic volte-face, deciding to deliver arms to Ukraine to support the country against Russia’s invasion. And a few days earlier, Scholz announced Berlin would halt the Nord Stream 2 Russia-to-Germany gas pipeline.
Germany’s political mainstream — particularly Scholz’s Social Democrats and his Green coalition partners — has been extremely reluctant to commit to the NATO spending target and to send arms to conflict zones, often arguing the country’s militaristic history means it has a special responsibility to foster peace.
Their critics at home and abroad, however, have accused them of naivety and have argued that Europe’s biggest economy is failing to pay its fair share toward defending the Continent while relying on the United States and other NATO allies for its own security.
In his speech to lawmakers, Scholz described Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as “a turning point in the history of our Continent” and made clear it was time for Berlin to step up.
“The horrific images from Kyiv, Kharkiv, Odesa and Mariupol show the whole ruthlessness of Putin,” he said. “It is clear that we need to invest significantly more in the security of our country in order to protect our freedom and our democracy.”
Scholz indirectly acknowledged the criticism that has long been leveled at Berlin when he said that his new spending goals should be “well within reach given our size and importance in Europe.”
His plans were met with loud applause from lawmakers.
Germany currently spends around 1.5 percent of GDP on defense and the current coalition government had previously been reluctant to commit to the 2 percent target, despite pleas from NATO allies.
The chancellor also cited an urgent need to “change course” on energy policy to make Germany less dependent on gas imports from Russia, and announced that Germany will “quickly build” two port terminals for liquefied natural gas (LNG) to diversify energy sources.
On defense, the chancellor said that Germany would seek “to build the next generation of battle tanks and aircraft together with our European partners, and in particular France, here in Europe.” Scholz added that “these projects are our top priority.”
At the same time, Germany would upgrade its Eurofighter jets with new electronic warfare systems and “take into consideration” the procurement of American F-35 stealth fighter jets to fulfill Berlin’s commitments to drop atomic bombs in the event of a nuclear conflict.
Scholz also said that Berlin is seeking to buy Israel’s armed Heron drone.
“We need planes that fly, ships that sail, and soldiers who are optimally equipped for their missions,” Scholz said in reference to the current state of the Bundeswehr, which has suffered from financial and equipment shortages for years and which was just this week described by army chief Alfons Mais as “more or less bare.”
West Germany had about 500,000 soldiers by the end of the Cold War, even before it reunited with the formerly communist east of the country. That number was successively reduced to the current strength of about 180,000 soldiers and the poor state of the army’s equipment has at times become a laughing stock.
In 2015, the image of Bundeswehr soldiers using black-painted broomsticks in place of machine guns in a NATO exercise in Norway became a symbol for Germany’s under-financed army.
Friedrich Merz, the leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the main opposition party, said that decades of German and European foreign policy had been reduced to a “pile of rubble” in the past week.
He did not hide, however, that this criticism was also directed at his own party, which led the government for 16 years under Angela Merkel, who stepped down last year.
Merz said his party would support the government’s efforts to boost Germany’s military, and added that tackling the country’s “weakness” had now become the “historic challenge” of Scholz’s chancellorship.
Yet he also took a swipe at leading politicians in Scholz’s Social Democrats, who had until recently defended and even actively supported the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline: “To describe them as useful idiots, in the sense of Lenin’s thought patterns, is probably still the kindest description of these activities,” Merz said.
Finance Minister Christian Lindner, from the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP), said that the planned €100 billion military spending was “an investment in our freedom” given the current situation.
Still, he reiterated his goal of sticking to the country’s constitutionally-anchored debt ceiling, which has been temporarily relaxed due to the coronavirus pandemic. He insisted this meant the Bundeswehr modernization should be financed through a separate fund.
“You can’t correct at least 15 years of neglect of the Bundeswehr out of the current budget,” Lindner said.
In his speech, Scholz also said Putin attacked Ukraine “for a single reason: The freedom of Ukrainians challenges his own oppressive regime.” He added: “This is inhuman, this is contrary to international law, this cannot be justified by anything or anyone.”
He justified Saturday’s decision on arms deliveries to Ukraine by saying that “in response to Putin’s aggression, there could be have been no other choice.”
Warning that Putin is seeking to re-establish a new “Russian empire” through aggression, Scholz said that the EU must be willing to consider further sanctions without any “thought limits.”
“Let’s not fool ourselves: Putin will not change his course overnight. But very soon the Russian leadership will feel the high price it is paying,” he said.