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Europe

German Court Allows Crews to Stay in Surveillance Planes

Germany's highest court ruled that the parliament does not have to vote on the deployment of air crews to Turkey, a NATO member. But the opposition will push a bill that requires a vote on such missions in the future.

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Staying on board: German air crews may remain on AWACS planes watching over Turkish air space.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, under legal fire for his decision to provide military support to NATO during the war against Iraq, won the support of the country's highest court late Tuesday for deciding to help the alliance member Turkey monitor its airspace for potential threats from Iraq.

The Federal Constitutional Court threw out a request from a small opposition party, the Free Democrats, that the justices require the nation's parliament to vote on the deployment of the surveillance plane crews. The justices said they would not require the parliament to vote because the country needed to be a reliable partner in foreign policy issues. They said that requiring the vote now could cause extensive damage to Germany's standing in the international community, particularly if the country were required to remove the aircrews from the planes.

The government expressed satisfaction with the ruling.

"I welcome this decision very much because it gives the federal government the leeway it needs in foreign-policy issues -- particularly during this difficult time," German Defense Minister Peter Struck said.

New law will be urged

FDP Parteivorsitzender Guido Westerwelle mit Anzug

Guido Westerwelle

The leader of the Free Democrats, Guido Westerwelle (photo), said he would accept the decision for now, but would launch a parliamentary effort to require lawmakers to vote on every foreign deployment of German troops. Currently, the parliament is required to vote on foreign deployments that are not being carried out by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, whose 19 members have pledged to defend one another.

The issue of NATO assistance to Turkey triggered one of the worst crises in NATO's 53-year history. Germany, France and Belgium, opponents of a possible U.S. war against Iraq at the time, vetoed the America request to assist Turkey in February. All three maintained that such preparations would indicate that a war against Iraq was inevitable. The alliance's leadership worked out a compromise after six days of talks, and NATO eventually sent four of the AWACS (Airborne warning and control systems) planes to Turkey to watch over the country's airspace. Germany is providing one-third of the air crews, about 20 servicemembers. If the country pulled out those crew members, the alliance could not continue the mission.

After accepting the compromise, Chancellor Schröder was forced to defend the decision amid criticism from the Free Democrats and other opposition members who maintained that the deployment was a foreign military mission that the parliament must consider.

"We still doubt where the deployment of AWACS planes is legal," Michael Glos of the opposition party Christian Social Union said last week. Those doubts stem from the planes' ability to watch over Turkey's airspace and simultaneously look deeply into Iraq's, Glos said.

Chancellor defends decision

Schröder rejected the call for a vote, saying the planes were under the control of NATO's supreme allied commander Europe and not the United States. "Therefore, no vote by the parliament is necessary," he told the nation's lawmakers last week.

Despite his support of the mission in the parliament, the chancellor still has doubts about the air crews' role in Turkey. These doubts stem from the possibility that Turkey will send an invasion force into northern Iraq and trigger a conflict with the Kurds who have enjoyed autonomy there since the first Persian Gulf War ended in 1991. On Saturday, Schröder convened his security cabinet to discuss the issue after he heard media reports that Turkey had begun to deploy troops.

After the meeting, Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer issued a threat to the Turkish government. "If Turkey becomes involved in the war, then it’s a new situation for us, and it would cause the removal of German servicemembers from the AWACS aircraft," Fischer said.

Small numbers of Turkish troops have been in northern Iraq since the 1990s, operating against rebel Turkish Kurds who have retreated there. Turkey is concerned that a Kurdish state could emerge after the war against Iraq and would reignite the armed Kurdish separatism in southeastern Turkey that cost 30,000 lives in the 1980s and 1990s. Iraqi Kurdish groups fear Turkey might move to crush their autonomy.

Opposition arises over base use

Separately, Schröder has been under pressure over support he is providing the United States in its war against Iraq. At issue is his decision to allow the United States to use its military bases in Germany and German airspace to conduct operations against Iraq.

On Wednesday, the day before the United States opened its war to overthrow Saddam Hussein, Schröder defended his decisions in an address to parliament.

"There may indeed be different opinions on international law," the chancellor said. "But because of our obligations to (NATO), we will permit the use of the bases, will not ban the use of German airspace, and we will naturally provide security for the facilities of our friends."

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