German defense minister says Berlin is ready to expand military role

BERLIN (Reuters) - German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said on Monday that Germany was ready to play a larger military role than in the past in the service of closer European defense cooperation.

“Change is necessary. Isolation and self-blockades will not solve the problems we face in the world, in Europe, or here in our country,” von der Leyen told a biennial gathering of 200 top military officials, citing Russia’s more aggressive actions, the ravages of the Syrian war and brewing challenges in Africa.

“Germany is ready to engage ... to take more responsibility,” she said. “This is the right path, but it will require an enormous commitment of time and money.”

Von der Leyen said the Finance Ministry had agreed to boost defense spending by a total of 10 billion euros through 2020 to help procure equipment and increase personnel.

The hike still needs the approval of parliament, and is only a step toward von der Leyen’s goal of spending 130 billion euros on investment programs by 2030.

Germany, Europe’s largest economy, and France are pushing to strengthen European defense cooperation after Britain’s June vote to leave the European Union. They insist the effort is not aimed at building a European army.

Spain and Italy have backed the proposal, but Britain is resistant, worried that greater EU security cooperation could weaken the NATO alliance.

After decades of reluctance to engage in major military operations, Germany is now playing a bigger role in the U.S.-led coalition that is fighting the Islamic State militant group in Iraq, including carrying out surveillance flights and supplying weapons to Kurdish Peshmerga forces.

“Germany is not making itself out to be bigger than it is, but also not smaller than it is,” von der Leyen said.

The minister said Europe, with its 500 million citizens, combined annual military budget of over 200 billion euros and 1.5 million troops, was far from reaching its potential in the security realm.

She said the push to strengthen European security cooperation was not intended to compete with NATO, which was working hard to strengthen its defenses in eastern Europe and counter Russia’s military buildup there.

But she said Europe needed new structures, such as a central medical command to better coordinate the response to crises such as the Ebola epidemic in Africa, a joint logistics command modeled on the existing European transportation command, and more joint efforts to develop and build new weapons.

“We must be able to react quickly,” she said, noting that it now often took months to respond to events.

Von der Leyen said Germany would also continue to expand its bilateral security agreements, including joint military forces that it operates with the Netherlands, Poland and France.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Kevin Liffey