AFTER 13 YEARS at the top of German politics, what does Angela Merkel regret? Asked this question at the Munich Security Conference on February 16th, the chancellor—rather than rueing her decisions on refugees or euro-zone reform—declared herself “greatly concerned” about Germany’s inability to harmonise its policy on arms exports with its European allies.
The chancellor had two audiences in mind. The first was France, which resents Germany’s tight export rules. The second was Germany’s Social Democratic Party, which governs in coalition with Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democrats and resists relaxing those rules. Put simply, the chancellor is trapped between her closest ally and her governing partner.
The proximate cause for the row is Germany’s decision last November to suspend all weapons exports to Saudi Arabia, following the murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist, by state goons. Because German components are often indispensable for weapons or arms systems made elsewhere, that policy threatened other countries’ export arrangements with the Saudis. Emmanuel Macron called it “pure demagoguery”. The British are also furious, for the decision undermines a potential £10bn ($13.3bn) deal to sell the Saudis 48 Eurofighter Typhoon jets, which need German parts. Jeremy Hunt, Britain’s foreign secretary, has privately accused Germany of undermining NATO and reducing European leverage on Saudi Arabia. Some French-made helicopters in Saudi Arabia are grounded for want of spare parts.
France and Britain view arms sales as a tool of foreign policy, and governments often back their firms’ export efforts. Germany gives priority to human rights. Under rules dating from 2000, German arms exports are supposed to be limited largely to EU and NATO members and their allies. In practice regulators have often adopted a more relaxed attitude; big customers over the past decade have included Algeria, Qatar and Egypt as well as the Saudis. Between 2012 and 2016 Germany was the world’s fifth-largest weapons exporter, and not without controversy: its tanks and small arms have turned up in the killing fields of Libya, Syria and Yemen.
Yet since 2013, says François Heisbourg, a Paris-based defence analyst, “chaos has replaced order” in German decision-making. That upsets domestic manufacturers, who have been tempted to establish subsidiaries overseas. And it infuriates allies who demand predictability. French concerns centre on proposed joint projects like the Future Combat Air System (a plan that includes fighter jets, satellites, drones and missiles, to which the Spanish have signed up) and a next-generation tank. Bruno Le Maire, France’s finance minister, fears Germany’s export rules could render such plans “useless”. The pair are now negotiating what would amount to an updated version of a 1972 agreement on arms exports that aimed to ensure neither could veto the other’s decisions. But the details are still sketchy.
Ursula von der Leyen, Mrs Merkel’s defence minister, told the Munich crowd that Germany must not act as if it occupies a higher moral plane than the British or French. Yet Sophia Besch at the Centre for European Reform says German sceptics are more likely to be convinced by arguments couched in European terms. Cross-border co-operation on defence and security offers the best chance to kick-start Europe’s stalled integration. Joint military projects could improve capabilities, boost European industry and hedge against American disengagement. But for Germany, that means overcoming long-established taboos. Seen from abroad, then, Germany faces an awkward choice: compromise on its principles, or stand in Europe’s way.