Speech by Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel at the security policy conference of the SPD parliamentary group “Impetus for a European defence union”

28.03.2017 - Speech

Wolfgang Hellmich,
Rainer Arnold,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and gentlemen,

Many thanks for your invitation and many thanks to all those who helped to prepare this conference.

You couldn’t have picked a more eventful week to discuss impetus for the future of Europe if you’d tried.

At the weekend, we celebrated the anniversary of the Treaties of Rome. And I’m delighted that we managed to adopt a joint declaration. However, the fact that this was difficult shows that we have reached a critical point.

There are many questions and discussions regarding how the European Union should safeguard its cohesion and the form that its cooperation should take in the future.

This is partly to do with Brexit. The EU is likely to receive a letter from the UK on the day after tomorrow, which will begin the process of the country’s exit from the European Union.

Incidentally, we must, with regard to security policy, have a strong interest in keeping relations with the UK as close as possible. I would advise anyway that we conduct the withdrawal process with self‑confidence and without inflicting any harm on the remaining 27 member states. And neither should this be done along the lines of “How can we punish the British people for their decision?”, rather we must see to it that we remain as close to each other as possible because, at the end of the day, as the British people will also come to realise, we need each other. This is obvious particularly in the realm of foreign, defence and security policy.

Above and beyond this, many intensive discussions are being held on the various models of integration and cooperation. Europe has kept its promise of peace. And you can tell quite quickly how unstable the situation is wherever the European Union’s hand of peace is absent. The European Union has not kept its promise of prosperity, however. We have a division between a relatively prosperous north and a less prosperous south undergoing difficulties. Irrespective of our take on how this problem ought to be tackled, we will, at any rate, need to be mindful to ensure that this social division in Europe does not run so deep that it jeopardises projects such as common foreign and security policy as we drift ever further apart from each other.

I believe that we are also witnessing great political differences between Central Eastern Europe and Western Europe when we consider the developments that we see in Poland and in Hungary. And, of course, this means that we must try, for instance in the area of security and defence policy, to identify new fields where greater cooperation is desired on the part of these countries and where integration is being driven forward by them while other fields might elude us in this regard.

I think we are all aware that we face immense challenges here in Europe. The prevailing narrative of years past – “muddling through” or “it’ll work out somehow” – will no longer fit the bill. A state of affairs that is untenable in the long term is if it is exclusively our country that is looked to on every issue. It is also tempting as we are, more and more, being called upon to take a leading role. However, we must take care not to lose sight of the fact that Europe isn’t just a collection of a few major countries, but that we are many small countries that are on an equal footing in Europe. We must constantly remind our partners in Washington, Moscow and Beijing that this isn’t just about Germany, which sticks out because it is strong economically. This is about the whole of Europe. We want us to stick together here. We Germans must sometimes take care to show smaller member states that we do know we are all equals here. Sometimes it would be more desirable if our dealings with the many other nations in Europe, to whom we must not come across as presuming to take the leading politically, economically and, ultimately, militarily, were a little more informed by the Bonn Republic and a little less by the Berlin Republic. This is not how Europe was built. Europe was built so that we could master challenges as a community. The paradox here is that while Europe is getting more important on the one hand, it is dogged by so many difficulties on the other.

It is becoming more important as events in the world at large that have such an intense and immediate impact on us are directly linked to European issues of the future.

Europe is surrounded by countless crises and conflicts that are putting all of us to the test.

The conflicts in our neighbourhood have not only increased in number, but are also getting closer to us – both on our eastern and on our southern borders.

Crises triggered by political failure, corruption, hunger and climate change are being added to the mix. All of this is keeping us immensely busy. Crises keep on emerging and, as we have seen, often remain unsolved.

We are feeling the consequences of this directly.

We are being forced to deal with refugees and increased migratory flows.

Terrorist threats are on the increase – as the recent attack in London reminded us once again all too clearly.

At the same time, raw power politics has made a comeback on the international stage. We are witnessing trends towards greater armament in many countries of the world. And we too are embroiled in a debate on how we must come to grips with this.

Europe is navigating a state of global affairs that has seldom seemed so complex and threatening.

And it is precisely for this reason that we need clever analyses and strong common responses – especially in foreign and security policy. To my mind – and this isn’t terribly surprising coming from a Foreign Minister – security and defence policy is a function of politics and foreign policy. It is not an accoutrement of foreign policy, but is obviously a function of politics in general. I cannot imagine how anyone would seek to define security and defence policy objectives and instruments without having a common perception of foreign policy. Foreign policy must therefore precede security and defence policy. We will only be able to deal with all of the crises and conflicts if we Europeans undertake common efforts across the board.

By the way, it is quite interesting to ask people where they think Europe must do more. One of the first answers they give is “foreign, security and defence policy”. It is most fascinating to see that citizens see this to be quite normal whereas career politicians have great difficulty reaching consensus on this matter. You don’t need to have studied politics to understand that 27 friends may not all have the same needs. And it would perhaps be fairly wise to think together about which skills we share and what we intend to achieve with them. Another reason for doing this is to be efficient and avoid wasting vast amounts of money in the wrong areas. I think this is something that citizens in Europe consider to be entirely normal – just as they consider it to be normal that the protection of the European Union’s external borders is ensured at community level. It was the Federal Republic of Germany that took a leading role in opposing this in the past. Germany thought of the protection of external borders as a national task. It is only now that awareness is growing that this is also part of a common security policy. At any rate, I think it is a very good sign that when people are asked what the European Union should do, they quite naturally cite foreign, security and defence policy as one of the major tasks that we can only master together. And, at the same time, citizens also have a number of ideas for things that the European Union does, but which we could perhaps do better at the national, regional or municipal level. Not “more Europe in all things”, but rather a different, a better Europe that concentrates on what works well at the supranational level and what we can no longer manage by ourselves. Incidentally, this is not about surrendering sovereignty. Europe and the European Union are there to ensure that where the member states no longer enjoy sovereignty in the world of tomorrow, we can regain this sovereignty as a community. Europe helps its nation states to enhance their sovereignty and not to forfeit it, as some people claim.

Granted, the European Union has also evolved in the area of foreign and security policy in recent years.

The Treaty of Lisbon laid important foundations for this, including the mutual assistance clause set out in Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union.

This shows that Europe is committed to the security of its citizens and to the territorial integrity of its member states.

The European Union has become, to an extent, a stabilising power, especially in its direct neighbourhood, but also beyond.

It emanates stability beyond its own borders in many ways – politically, with a proactive security policy and, of course, economically.

However, ladies and gentlemen,

the truth is that Europe’s abilities to project security and stability beyond its own borders are most certainly not yet sufficiently well developed. In a nutshell, you could say that the European Union, taken by itself, is not yet able to project power. In view of developments in the world, where military power has gained in prominence as a factor of international policy once again, you cannot ignore this fact, even if we wish the world were different. I therefore believe that Europe should not develop a special form of exceptionalism of a kind that we a familiar with from the US, one which is simply inverted. The message preached by the doctrine of American exceptionalism goes like this: “We have the best model for coexistence and we are bringing this to the world.” Europe should take care to ensure that we do not preach the inverse of this, namely: “We too know what the best way to coexist is. However, we actually don’t want to have all that much to do with the world. We don’t want to be drawn into conflicts.”

And we prefer to think about how we can make the walls on Europe’s borders a little higher once again than to consider how we can demonstrate with political, economic and, if necessary, military power, that we have a voice in this world. That we are prepared to defend ourselves and also to help others. We cannot blame the European Union for the fact that this is not yet the case today and that we lack instruments and capabilities for helping to prevent and manage crises and conflicts more comprehensively and effectively and to become a global actor promoting security and stability.

At the end of the day, the EU lacks the means to safeguard its own security to the extent that would be desirable.

This can come as no surprise and is not meant as an accusation. The European Union was not designed to be a global player. It was intended to ensure peace and prosperity for its members.

It has successfully performed this role for decades.

However, the EU is not yet in a position to play an active and shaping as well as a mediating, mitigating, de‑escalating and stabilising role at the global level.

And yet Europe as a credible actor in the world would be more important today than ever before.

I’m not the only one who sees things this way. Two‑thirds of Europeans want there to be more, and not less, European integration in the area of foreign, security and defence policy.


So what needs to be done? I want to mention two principles that I believe should guide us, before outlining a number of concrete steps that we should take.

Firstly, the primacy of foreign policy must apply especially with regard to security policy issues in Europe. I emphasise this not in my capacity as Foreign Minister, but because I firmly believe that we must always consider the political challenges that we face. For this, we need, more so today than in the past, a common European understanding of these problems and challenges as the basis for our common action. The High Representative Federica Mogherini took an important step forward in this regard last year with the Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy for the European Union. We must build on this.

After all, it is clear that, in a world in which the balance of power is shifting, we will only have a voice if it is a common European voice. For this, we need a common foreign policy at European level on the basis of which we can develop our security policy instruments.

The basis for this must – this is the second principle that I wish to mention – be a comprehensive concept of security that comprises all available means and instruments. We must focus on what it is that characterises us Europeans.

Our strength lies precisely in the fact that we approach crises with a broad toolbox – with diplomatic, civilian, police and, yes, also with military means. But not exclusively. The European Union in particular is in a position to make all of these instruments available. This is a hallmark of European foreign and security policy that we must preserve and expand.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am strongly in favour of continuing to develop our military capabilities in Europe and also advocate strengthening our common defence. I will say a bit more about this in just a moment. However, because this has been an issue on a number of occasions recently, I would like to explain briefly why the tenor of the current discussion surrounding our military spending worries me.

I simply believe that we are too preoccupied with the matter of military spending in the public debate, and also within NATO. I believe that we have to be a bit careful not to revert to the times when we thought increased military spending equated to increased security. A mathematician would say that being able to defend oneself militarily is a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for security.

This is why we must indeed do more and also increase our spending. What is decisive, however, is how we go about this.

At a purely national level? Should we as Germans also pursue a two percent target, which, by the way, doesn’t exist in NATO? There is no stipulation of an apodictic two percent target. The predilection in the public debate with talking this up gives me cause for thought. This two percent target would mean that Germany would spend nearly 70 billion euros on the Bundeswehr each year. Looking to the future, I’m not so sure whether our European partners would still actually consider this to be an especially safe bet in twenty years’ time with twelve years of such investment under our belts. We would, at the heart of Europe, with the biggest economy and the country with the largest population, spend gigantic sums of money on the German Bundeswehr each year. I doubt whether this would be in line with the concept of interconnected and common security.

Boiling the discussion down to defence spending is therefore a mistake in itself. However, it is also a mistake to consider this issue in national terms – especially for us in Europe. The actual way to make a difference is to invest now – in common capabilities and structures where we assume responsibility for each other. And for which the Federal Republic of Germany must make do its own part.

I think it will be to Germany’s credit for us to take such debates seriously. This seriousness is manifested firstly by being honest with others. I don’t know of anyone who would put together and approve a federal budget like that. And certainly no one who, like my colleague Jens Spahn, believes that cutbacks should be made to welfare spending. Incidentally, I know of no one in Europe who, like the US President, would allow an increase in the military budget to go hand in hand with cutbacks in funding for the World Food Programme, development aid and crisis prevention.

You can probably see why I view this two percent debate with a bit of concern. If it results in cutbacks to the civilian part of security policy among the strongest proponents of this policy, then I sense that we would be heading in the wrong direction were we to simply replicate this.

And no matter how difficult it is to take a nuanced position in such debates, we should adopt one. Namely that we are, firstly, committed to modernising the Bundeswehr and to assuming a greater share of the defence burden. However, we do not intend to pursue such gigantic and, in the final instance, false demands such as the two percent target. That, instead, we aim to maintain an enhanced security concept in which we also live up to our responsibility.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The core of the matter is, after all, that the EU brings about security for Europe together and works together to promote peace and stability in the world – without countries going it alone any more. These are the key points of the European project and our European efforts to achieve this should also be recognised internationally. The primacy of foreign policy and a comprehensive concept of security – this is the framework in which, to my mind, the member states of the European Union must deepen their common foreign policy and also their cooperation in common defence.


Ladies and gentlemen,

We must be prepared to have the courage to achieve greater European integration in these areas.

I have seen a high level of consensus among the member states in many areas. This isn’t true across the board though, and our cooperation within the EU is also not yet efficient enough. This is why I feel an obligation to strengthen the High Representative in her role.

In the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear programme, it was a boon that Europe was directly represented by the High Representative at the table and able to negotiate successfully. The fact that the European External Action Service is organising the next conference on Syria in the coming week is a vital signal for European engagement for this reason too. However, together with our European partners, we should also consider, in other fields, how we can ensure that the High Representative is able to attend decisive talks and negotiations. This might sound like a small step. However, it is important in order to trigger changes in mindsets, in European thinking – both among our European partners and our negotiation partners.

I firmly believe that we must also find new ways to make our work in the Foreign Affairs Council, where the Foreign Ministers meet, more efficient.

It is time to put national sensitivities that block our common action as Europeans on the back burner.

For example, when this has to do with forging ahead with important projects and the whole thing collapses because a single country doesn’t want to join the consensus.

Can’t we as member states show more willingness to refrain from holding the entire EU back with a single veto?

We don’t need an amended treaty for this, but the political will of each and every member state. Political self‑commitment isn’t something that only applies to the economy, but also to ourselves. Why shouldn’t it be possible to say something like this: “If we are alone in such a vote, we will not hold up the European project with our veto.” This would help us to take European foreign policy a major step forward.

Positioning ourselves better as a Union also means improving the coordination of our political, civilian and military instruments. Civilian experts, diplomats, police officers and soldiers are currently deployed in 15 EU crisis management missions. Our work in this area extends from Ukraine to the Horn of Africa. This week, we are going to seek an extension to the mandate for the Bundeswehr’s involvement in the EU mission in Mali, where the EU training mission is training Malian soldiers. At the same time, the EU has deployed a civilian advisory mission in order to strengthen Mali’s security sector. It is important that our activities complement each other in this regard. And I welcome the fact that German police officers are training their Malian counterparts.

In general, I think that we are taking the right approach in supporting police missions around the world more strongly than in the past with our Federal Police – be it with the EU in Mali, within the OSCE or in the United Nations. This was something that the German Bundestag called for some time ago. What we Europeans are doing in Mali is part of an overall strategy and we are liaising closely with the United Nations.

However, the example of Mali also shows where we must make progress in Europe as regards the coordination of our various instruments.

Let me give you an example. The Commander of the EU training mission in Mali has had to tackle two difficult tasks simultaneously. Firstly, taking responsibility for a challenging mission in the field. And, secondly, seeing to the planning and decision‑making process in Brussels at the same time. Juggling two tasks makes little sense. And this brings me to the concrete steps to be taken in the area of security and defence policy. We have made important progress at the European level in recent times.

While some of the things in this area may appear to be minor or technical at first sight, they actually have a major impact. A few weeks ago, we agreed to the establishment of the “Military Planning and Conduct Capability” for military training missions in Brussels – this was an important step. This somewhat cumbersome name denotes a European command centre where all efforts are coordinated – an institution that Europe still doesn’t dare call by its actual name. Moreover, there will be a civil‑military coordination cell where civilian and military aspects can now, finally, be better dovetailed with each other. This will be immensely important in the case of Mali, for example.

We are also working on “enhanced structured cooperation”. We must continue to do this and pursue the debate on which member states are prepared to follow suit and do more together. We are giving greater thought to our common capabilities. An important step in this direction could be a European defence fund equipped with the financial resources to develop and procure military capabilities jointly. It is important to organise extra investments in Europe such that they are efficient and result in greater common European strength – and not to further imbalances between individual member states.

We must increasingly come to understand that our capabilities are “embedded” within the European framework. And we must organise these capabilities so that they go hand in hand with what we are doing in NATO. I think that we are still a long way from having a “European army” or joint armed forces. However, thinking more in European terms as well as coordinating capabilities and developing and procuring them in concert – this must be the objective that we commit ourselves to with all our might.

However, this will also mean – and we must be realistic when we call for and aspire to this – that we in Germany must think about how we can be best prepared for this.

We rightly have the requirement for parliamentary approval for Bundeswehr missions abroad. And the jurisprudence of the Federal Constitutional Court and the Parliamentary Participation Act offer us clear guidelines.

However – and we must be honest about this – more integrated capabilities at European level will also mean that there will be a greater focus on the reliability of each and every partner, including Germany. In a situation in which, for example, the European Union says: “We are taking part in a UN mission” – and certain capabilities can only be made available by member states when Germany provides the necessary back‑ups for this. This must not be contingent upon objections by the German Bundestag because election time is looming or we are locked in difficult debates. We must be aware that politics will be facing challenges in our country. We can talk about many things with each other, however the basis for this is reliability in our capabilities and reliability in our common security policy. Our partners must be able to expect this from us and we must meet their expectations.


Ladies and gentlemen,

You will hold talks and discussions today on how we can inject impetus into a Europe that must be better able to hold its own in a world that, unfortunately, does not appear to be getting any more peaceful.

And allow me to add one more thing with respect to the letter awaited from London, which is that I am really not happy about the Brexit decision. However, if it means that we in Europe close ranks and we manage, especially in foreign and security policy, to keep our British friends by our side, then we shouldn’t have any cause to fear this letter or its consequences.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Things will not get any less complex in the future. However, our real task for the future is to continue to work on our common Europe in spite of all of the eurosceptic trends out there. We are reminded now of the fact that we mustn’t simply take for granted what our parents and grandparents built up so painstakingly. If we manage now to achieve “more Europe” in foreign policy, security and defence, then we will have laid important foundations for the future of this Europe that posterity will thank us for.

Common values in Europe are guiding us in these endeavours – freedom, democracy and human rights – and a European shared responsibility for our security, and also for global peace and stability.

Thank you for listening.

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