It was a suggestion that turned heads, almost all of them skeptical. “Germany and France are already working together on the project of a future European fighter aircraft; other nations are invited to participate,” Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, then the newly-elected leader of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), wrote in March 2019 as part of her response to French President Emmanuel Macron’s EU reform agenda. “In a next step, we could start together the symbolic project of a common European aircraft carrier, as an expression of the EU’s global role as a force for security and peace.”
While Merkel signaled support, the proposal was blown out of the water pretty much immediately. “A hare-brained idea” (eine Schnapsidee), a leading parliamentarian of the CDU’s coalition partner, the SPD, Thomas Oppermann, rudely called it. Vocal critics included Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, who wrote on Twitter: “An aircraft carrier is an instrument of geopolitical/military power projection. A common strategy and a well-aimed chain-of-command would be prerequisites. For Germany, that’s light years away!”
In the late Merkel era, however, light years seem to be passing with remarkable speed.
That’s largely thanks to Kramp-Karrenbauer, or AKK, as she is generally known. The former prime minister of Germany’s tiniest, western-most federal state, Saarland, may have given up, in early 2020, her aspirations of following Merkel as chancellor (AKK’s successor as CDU leader will be elected on January 16, 2021). At the helm of the defense ministry, which she only took over from Ursula von der Leyen in summer 2019, she already looks like a consequential figure.
Graveyard of Ambitions
This is remarkable for a number of reasons. Germany’s defense ministry has a well-own reputation as a graveyard of ambitions and reputations. The careers of politicians from the CDU’s Bavarian sister party the CSU in particular, be it Franz-Josef Strauss in the 1950s/60s or Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg in the late 2000s/early 2010s, suffered (near-)death experiences when they tried their luck as defense ministers. Until choosing von der Leyen as the first female to oversee the Bundeswehr, Merkel preferred her defense ministers to be uncharismatic administrators.
Von der Leyen, now president of the European Commission, started the thankless task of reforming an army that, after years of cutbacks and the indefinite “pause” of national service, was barely fit for purpose. To deeply confuse any enemy, or so the joke went, all that was needed was to leak to them the organizational chart of the Bundesbeschaffungsamt—since 2012, its full title is Bundesamt für Ausrüstung, Informationstechnik und Nutzung der Bundeswehr—the government agency responsible for equipping Germany’s forces. For decades, the “BAAINBw” had been the source of one budget-busting, far-too-lately-delivered defense project after another.
While much improved, von der Leyen’s attempts to shake up procurement procedures with the help of outside consultants proved controversial and continues to exercise a parliamentary inquiry—another sign that change doesn’t come easy to Germany’s army, also because opposition parties (and parts of the SPD) like to use “Bundeswehr scandals,” real or imagined, for political point-scoring.
Making Soldiers Visible
However, this hasn’t stopped AKK. In her 18 months in office, she has made the Bundeswehr (which is presently also engaged in the fight against COVID-19) much more visible, by public swearing-in ceremonies and granting soldiers a free ride on the national train service if they are wearing their uniforms. She acted swiftly by dissolving large parts of the Bundeswehr’s KSK special forces after numerous shocking press reports that showed the KSK as a magnet for extremists, often with neo-Nazi leanings. Only created in 1996, the KSK had been the Bundeswehr’s pride, putting it, at least in ambition, on par with other Western armed forces.
She also pushed through a difficult decision on the replacement of Germany’s ailing Tornado fighter jet force. Contrary to most of her predecessors, she also does not shy away from public debates and seemingly controversial suggestions. When Turkish troops advanced into north-eastern Syria in late 2019, AKK suggested the creation of an EU-led safe zone—an operation that would have faced huge logistical obstacles, but nonetheless was a rare signal of European willingness to act in its neighborhood. Again, the Social Democrats were the strongest critics. One of the party’s most prominent members, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, denounced the idea in Ankara, of all places. (The SPD leadership has since abdicated playing a responsible role when it comes to military affairs, blocking in December 2020 a decision to procure armed drones for the Bundeswehr by ludicrously claiming that there had been “insufficient debate.” The issue had been debated since 2013.)
Contrary to most German politicians, AKK is open about the need for Germany to “do more” and “take greater responsibility” militarily; while this is the consensus in Berlin, there are only a few who actually argue for it and work on building public support—which, in fact, is already much greater than often imagined. When INTERNATIONALE POLITIK, in its bimonthly IP-Forsa poll, asked Germans in summer 2018 what the Bundeswehr was for, majorities of around 70 percent supported not only alliance defense, but also military missions reacting to humanitarian crises abroad as well as international peace-keeping operations. Fighting missions to pacify a conflict were supported by 25 percent of the respondents (and by 33 percent of those younger than 30).
In the debate about the future of European defense in the light of the recent US elections, AKK irked Macron when in an article published in Politico, she declared: “Illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end.” (A “historical misinterpretation,” Macron called it.) And although the German defense minister is certainly highly skeptical of any neo-Gaullism, basically both want the same thing: a Europe that is capable also militarily. AKK has certainly done her bit in recent weeks and months, energetically putting into practice Germany’s new Indo-Pacific “guidelines” adopted in summer 2020 (which will likely prefigure EU policy), building relationships with the Australian and Japanese navies, inter alia, on whose ships in the South China Sea German officers may soon serve on exchange missions: geopolitics in action.
The window of opportunity for a European aircraft carrier seems to have closed again with France having started work on building, from around 2025, a replacement for its nuclear-fueled Charles de Gaulle carrier. The latest debate has shown, however, how important “symbolic” projects like this original AKK idea will prove in future, when it comes to advance, in real terms, an EU defense policy worthy of its name.
Henning Hoff is Executive Editor of Internationale Politik Quarterly.