For a European Defence Union

Thomas Oppermann

By Thomas Oppermann

Parliamentary party leader of the SPD in the Bundestag

Wednesday 6 September 2017

To read the article below in German see Für eine europäische Verteidigungsunion.

The world is in disarray: ISIS is terrorising the Arab region and European cities; civil wars and famines are forcing millions to flee. After the illegal annexation of Crimea and the escalation of the Ukraine crisis, the relationship with Russia is more tense than ever. The USA – once guarantor and shaper of the liberal world order – under President Trump risks turning from a global leader to a supporter of nationalism and isolationism. The powder-keg in the Middle East, the crisis of the EU, Trump, Putin, Erdogan, and Kim Jong Un are indicators of a world undergoing dramatic geopolitical changes. In these times of insecurity, Germany and Europe have the duty to take on more responsibility: We must protect our own population and contribute to bringing peace to international crises.

We will not achieve this through isolationism or nationalism. America first, France first, whoever first - these are not appropriate models for a peaceful co-existence of nations in the 21st century. That is nationalism. The European Union is the exact opposite. She is the only form of transnational democracy in which different nations can work together, realise their core values and defend them. Especially in times of international insecurity we have to strengthen and develop these further – including through a joint foreign and defence policy.

The SPD’s aim is the advancement of a European defence union. There is a clear economic argument for stronger collaboration between EU member states. Currently 27 armies use 27 different procurement systems to buy the same armaments. While the Unites States can operate with 30 different weapon systems, EU member states treat themselves to 178 different weapons systems for their 27 armies. This lack of cooperation between member states is estimated to cost between €25-1000 billion. These funds should be invested in research and development, instead of maintaining national parallel structures. We should therefore work with our EU partners to develop the European security and defence policy. Our long-term goal is a European army. The Lisbon treaty could provide the framework for this.

Such a union would be an addition to NATO and the United Nations, not in competition with them. German participation in military operations must always take place with a UN mandate. NATO remains our primary security guarantor and in light of international threats, it must be well equipped. For this reason we have increased the defence budget by €2.7 billion this year.

The German Bundeswehr needs greater financial resources. For years it suffered under a rigorous austerity policy by conservative politicians. It needs helicopters that can fly, materials fit for use, and well-trained and capable troops to face new challenges and fulfil its primary mission of national and alliance defence. A continuous increase of the defence budget is therefore necessary.

Many soldiers have informed me of the poor reform of the Bundeswehr in 2011. While the intention was appropriate – a professional army instead of conscription – it resulted in cuts without a clear concept. Former defence ministers Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, Thomas de Maizière and Ursula von der Leyen have missed opportunities to invest in a smart structure for the Bundeswehr. This will be a task for the next defence minister: reducing bureaucracy, consolidating competencies, training of highly specialised skills and investment into the collaboration with our European colleagues.

Closer collaboration at the European level automatically leads to opportunities to pool capabilities. This way the ‘2% goal’, which has become a target under US President Trump, becomes less relevant. German expenditure for the Bundeswehr is currently at 1.2% of GDP. That equals about €37 billion.

According to her own statements, Merkel intends to nearly double these over the next few years. That is not only unrealistic but also unreasonable. Germany would become the largest military power in Europe. Our position is clear: with the SPD there will never be €70 billion budget for defence and armament. For Social Democrats the purpose is to have the best possible equipment, not the largest possible rearmament.

Our answer to international crises - not least Trump - is: We back a comprehensive approach to our security policy. We want early prevention of conflicts and war. Instead of a pompous military power we want to be a force for peace and in this role we will take part in the necessary UN missions. We want to train local police and security forces, assist in establishing government authorities and courts, and strengthen developing economies internally. The best way to achieve this is if Europe sticks together – even and especially in foreign and defence policy.

The SPD stands for a foreign and security policy of peace. This has defined our country and improved our recognition around the world – from Willy Brandt’s détente up to Gerhard Schrőders rejection of the Iraq war. We Social Democrats will make sure that additional expenditure for our defence capabilities will be combined with additional expenditures for diplomacy, crisis prevention, humanitarian aid, and sustainable development. This is the only way sustainable peace can return to the crisis regions around the world. These are our answers, even and especially, in these troubled times.


The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s), and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN's aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe's capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security challenges of our time.

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Cover Image (c) Steffen Geyer, Wahlkampf mit Sprühkreide

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