Arms Control in Germany: The Bundestag Finally Wakes Up

By Hans Berger

In what has been seen as a victory for the German pacifist movement, the German Bundestag resoundingly rejected a proposal by the CDU/CSU faction to send long-range Taurus missiles to Ukraine. This victory is not legally binding, but it is symbolic, not least in the face of unusual pro-arms posturing from the Greens. It is even more significant considering the current fragility of Scholz’s coalition in the face of a complex socio-economic issues. The decision, in the end, lies with the Chancellor himself.

Pacifists rejoice

On January 17, the German Bundestag resolutely rejected a motion by the centre-right CDU/CSU faction to provide Taurus long-range missiles to Ukraine. Rebuffed by 485 votes to 178, It has been seen as an emphatic victory for the Traffic Light Coalition (Ampelkoalition), the wider German pacifist movement and Chancellor Scholz himself, who has made no secret of his fears of escalation if German-supplied weapons were to be used to attack Russia itself.

Surprisingly, members of the left-wing Green Party, part of the coalition, have explicitly supported Ukraine’s right to do so. In an interview with DW, Sara Nanni, defence policy spokesperson for the Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag, brushed aside concerns over possible consequences. “I always fear that Russia might extend its war to NATO, and therefore to Germany. However, it doesn’t matter what we supply or do not supply. It only matters what Putin decides,” she said.

Indeed, the Ampelkoalition came to power with a promise to reduce German arms exports in general. This promise has been completely broken. According to a statement from the Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs, German arms exports totalling €8.35 billion were approved from January 1 to December 22, 2022. This marks the second-highest value in the country’s history, surpassed only by the €9.35 billion exports in 2021. After Ukraine, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been the biggest beneficiaries thanks to loopholes in the legislation that is supposed to prevent Germany exporting weapons of war to countries waging wars in their neighbourhood (so called “Krisengebiete”). This has exposed outright hypocrisy at the very centre of German power.

Naturally, this process has been decidedly complicated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and Scholz’s ‘Turning Point’ (Zeitenwende) policy realignment, which has marked a paradigm shift in Germany’s dominant defence policy since reunification, which has focused on military downsizing, multilateralism and restraint. Scholz has since promised to reequip the Bundeswehr, and military procurement has been backed by a special €100 billion fund (Söndervermögen).

A bumpy road for the coalition

But the coalition is going through a period of fragility and uncertainty, which has left it in Krisenmodus, aggravated by the global climate crisis that has precipitated significant social tensions, an energy crisis, an ongoing dispute with German farmers over subsidy cuts, and the wider threat of a confrontation between liberal and authoritarian systems around the world. Such a state of affairs has shaken Germany’s post-reunification status quo to the core.

For years, Germans have economically benefited significantly from a policy that aimed at the peaceful coexistence of different states and blocs, neglecting emerging changes, dependencies, and global limits to growth, often realising them too late. Therefore, we are now particularly affected by the security, climate, and social policy consequences of past miscalculations. The costs associated with correcting these errors amount to billions and represent specific gateways for corruption risks,” according to Hartmut Bäumer, Chairman of Transparency Germany.

Baümer highlights an important point. in Germany’s domestic defence and security sector, there have been relatively few high-profile corruption cases in recent years. However, German companies consistently find themselves entangled in corruption allegations when it comes to arms sales to foreign governments. The most recent incident revolves around the sale of submarines to Israel, and similar occurrences have been reported in countries such as Greece, Brazil, South Africa, and Algeria (not to mention Qatar’s penchant for corruption at home and abroad). Frequently, German companies wield influence through on-site agents or subcontractors, a practice that has allowed firms to circumvent stringent federal regulation on arms exports. The federal government’s suggested Arms Export Control Act (REKG) aims to establish a more transparent legal framework, potentially diminishing corruption risks associated with arms exports. “In future, compliance with human rights and European arms cooperation will have greater weight in decisions on arms exports,” explains Sven Giegold, member of Alliance 90/The Greens and State Secretary in the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action. Giegold, who supervises German arms exports, has been working on a document that outlines a European framework for extending value requirement for arms export partners.

Organised opposition

Of course, Germany’s decades-long demilitarisation and post-war denazification programs have left it beholden to its allies in terms of defence. Restrictive legislation and modalities of control have meant German arms export policy is forever under the microscope and restrained by a vast movement of political activism on the left. Indeed, 16 movements founded a coalition “Aufschrei”! to track, and criticize German arms sales abroad, who, when leveraged in unison, can be a powerful voice in the arena of German politics.

So it is no surprise that the country’s increase in arms exports and lavish military spending has has riled up this movement, which remains steadfast in its opposition to the arms industry in spite of growing crises in Ukraine and the Middle East. Sevim Dagdelen, former member of Die Linke and co-founder of a new movement alongside Sarah Wagenknecht, has sharply criticised this arms export policy: “The cabinet of the SPD, FDP, and Greens is responsible for the second-highest exports of weapons and military equipment of all time. Instead of restricting arms exports as promised, the Traffic Light Coalition ruthlessly delivers arms to war and crisis zones, benefiting from conflicts and casualties.” Indeed, Dagdelen co-penned a written question to the federal government that asks a number of serious questions about Qatar’s human rights record, notably following reports of mistreatment of guest workers in the framework of the 2022 World Cup: “According to the knowledge of the federal government, what differences persist regarding the human rights situation between Qatari citizens and migrants or guest workers (response to Question 4 on Bundestagsdrucksache 19/5948)?”

Scrutiny of Germany’s dealings with countries like Qatar are high on the agenda with this pro-peace movement. In their coalition agreement, the German government announced its intention to designate German foreign, security, and development policy as “value-based.” In the “system competition with autocratically governed states,”human rights as the most important shield of individual dignity” serve as their compass. According to the federal government, the “commitment to peace, freedom, human rights, democracy, the rule of law, and sustainability […] is an indispensable part of a successful and credible foreign policy for Germany and Europe”. The Emirate of Qatar, which has been chosen by the German government as a long-term energy partner, is considered an authoritarian regime, with a dubious human rights record and penchant for corruption, making Germany’s willingness to deal with it somewhat surprising, considering Germany’s generally progressive stance on social issues.

In light of the eventual decision to withhold the export of the Taurus and the heightened sensitivity surrounding export matters, we can anticipate a resurgence in demands placed on partner countries in the realm of armaments. This is especially likely for Qatar, where discontent among the left-wing forces has arisen due to perceived government passivity, whether in matters related to the soccer world cup, the gas contract, or the incident involving the German president during their recent visit.

For a nation seemingly devoid of a conspicuous self-defence imperative, the German government may find it tempting to bolster its image by adopting a more assertive stance and making renewed demands comparable to those directed at adversaries in any forthcoming discussions on weaponry.

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