Germany to boost defence spending, but legacy also important: Gabriel

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany will increase its defence spending as promised to NATO allies, but the government must also keep in mind its military history and fears among European neighbours, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel said on Wednesday.

Germany's Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel delivers his speech during the 53rd Munich Security Conference in Munich, Germany, February 18, 2017. REUTERS/Michaela Rehle

“One has to ask whether it would really calm Germany’s neighbours if we turned into a big military power in Europe and ... spent over 60 billion euros a year in weapons,” Gabriel told reporters. “I have my doubts.”

Gabriel, a Social Democrat, underscored his concerns about rapidly increasing spending to meet NATO’s defence spending target of 2 percent of economic output, arguing that a broader approach was needed to build collective capabilities in Europe.

Germany has come under increased pressure since the election of U.S. President Donald Trump to boost military spending to meet NATO’s target of 2 percent of gross domestic product.

The issue has become a source of tension between Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats and Gabriel’s Social Democrats, junior partners in the ruling coalition government who are hoping to unseat Merkel in September national elections.

Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen, a conservative, on Wednesday criticised Gabriel for his remarks at the Munich Security Conference, where he warned against focusing solely on defence spending and unleashing a new arms race.

Gabriel was “already part of the government in 2014 when his fellow Social Democratic foreign minister signed off on the commitment” to NATO, von der Leyen told Germany’s Stern magazine in an interview published Wednesday.

“It’s not good when a government ... doesn’t stick to its word after just three years,” she told the magazine. “No one will understand if a country like Germany that is doing so well economically says ‘We can’t do it.’”

NATO members agreed at the Wales Summit in 2014 to boost military spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024. Germany now spends about 1.2 percent of GDP on defence.

Gabriel fired back on Wednesday, saying the defence ministry’s first priority should be to tackle delays and technical challenges with existing weapons programmes.

“Our biggest problem at the moment is that the equipment doesn’t fly, sail or drive,” he said.

For instance, a brand-new German A400M transport plane was grounded earlier this month during von der Leyen’s visit to German troops in Lithuania, while other big weapons programmes have been delayed.

Henning Otte, a Christian Democratic defence expert in parliament, said lawmakers hoped to make progress on as many new arms projects as possible before parliament’s summer recess.

“These programmes are essential for the continued readiness of the Bundeswehr, especially given the changing security threats,” he said in a statement to Reuters.

Reporting by Sabine Siebold and Andrea Shalal; Writing by Michael Nienaber; Editing by Tom Heneghan