Arms Sales Send Lawyers, Guns and Money

A feud between the German defense minister and vice chancellor over whether military weapons can be sold to suspect regimes is hurting Germany's arms industry.
The warring parties.

Ursula von der Leyen, Germany's defense minister and a member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), and Sigmar Gabriel, vice chancellor, economics minister and leader of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), the junior partner in the ruling coalition, have something in common.

They feel a higher calling.

It can safely be assumed that both want to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel. Should the chancellor decide not to run in 2017 after 12 years in office, which is in no way a given, Ms. von der Leyen likely would stand for the CDU and Mr. Gabriel for the SPD. This means both are staying alert in the run-up and not cutting the other any slack.

Currently, the two rivals are jousting in the arena of arms policy. Mr. Gabriel kicked things off when he announced arms deliveries to countries with poor human rights policies should be allowed only in exceptional cases. This forced Ms. von der Leyen to take a stand, when she would have preferred to steer clear of the controversial issue.

In another dispute, over the key military technologies that must be kept in Germany at all costs, the two have pushed their tactical maneuvering to extremes. In particular, neither wants to be the one to publicly declare that the controversial production of submarines, tanks and small arms is indispensable.

Neither wants to be the one to publicly declare that the controversial production of submarines, tanks and small arms is indispensable.

That’s incompatible with Mr. Gabriel’s loudly stated position on restrictions on the export of tanks and small arms specifically, a stance which scores points with liberal voters. And it’s not exactly good news for Ms. von der Leyen, who has been distancing herself from the arms industry.

The two ministers are now passing the hot potato back and forth. After Mr. Gabriel first pushed the defense minister to take a stand on key technologies, Ms. von der Leyen retaliated in October with a proposal that could only be a provocation.

In it, she left out the largest parts of the defense production capabilities in Germany, attracting the attention not only of the arms industry, but her own party. Mr. Gabriel castigated the plan as being too narrow and was all for including submarines. And now Ms. von der Leyen is once again open to the sale of tanks. And so it goes, back and forth, as the public waits to see who will be the first to flinch over small arms.

These political games are hard to bear for the defense companies. For relative newcomers to the industry, it’s important to know if their business sector will be on the “do not export” list or not. Ultimately it depends on preferential treatment from German military procurement officers, in accessing public research funds and in the approval of export licenses.

It’s not a game for these companies. It is a matter of survival.


Till Hoppe is a foreign policy correspondent in Berlin. To contact the author: [email protected]