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Powerful parting shot

John BlauJanuary 9, 2014

Was former German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere simply letting off some steam with his surprisingly undiplomatic remarks about allies at a departure ceremony? Or was he setting the stage for his successor?

Thomas de Maiziere and Ursula von der Leyen Photo: oto: Maurizio Gambarini/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Thomas de Maiziere isn't letting the cat out of the bag and his silence on the issue has fueled plenty of discussion among German military experts. The former defense minister and current head of the German Interior Ministry said Germany did not need to take lessons in international military deployments from any country.

"His remarks have prompted quite a reaction, and I think he may have opened the door for his successor, Ursula von der Leyen, to breathe new life into a new European defense and security policy," said Olaf Boehnke with the European Council on Foreign Relations.

The interior minister in Germany's new government made some critical remarks on Wednesday (08.01.2014) during a military ceremony, known as a Zapfenstreich, to mark his departure.

Far more involved

"Germany needs no lectures from anybody in Europe about the type or the extent of foreign international deployments - not even from France or Britain," he said.

De Maiziere went on to say Germany has been far more involved in international interventions than France. That remark appeared to refer to the NATO-led operation in Afghanistan where Germany continues to contribute the third highest number of troops behind the United States and Britain. French troops have since returned home. German troops are scheduled to withdraw from Afghanistan in 2014.

Thomas de Maiziere visiting German troops in Afghanistan Photo: FABRIZIO BENSCH/AFP/Getty Images
De Maiziere gave his support to German troops at home and abroadImage: Getty Images/Afp/Fabrizio Bensch

In a veiled dig at British Prime Minister David Cameron's defeat in parliament over possible action in Syria, de Maiziere said "no German government has suffered a defeat on a vote to approve military intervention."

Seldom do ministers speak their minds so clearly as they are aware of the consequences that their remarks can have on shaping strategies and forming alliances.

'Security consumer'

De Maiziere may have had nothing to lose with his parting shot, but maybe his successor, von der Leyen, has more to gain from it.

That's what German military experts are trying to figure out.

"De Maiziere had to listen to a lot of criticism from France and Britain, as well as the United States, that Germany was still too much of a security consumer and too little the security provider they felt an economic power should be," Boehnke told DW. "He kept saying 'look at the numbers of troops deployed in Afghanistan' and pointing to other international deployments, but kept hearing about Libya and Syria."

Bundeswehr soldiers in Afghanistan in 2008 Photo: Maurizio Gambarini dpa
German troops will return from Afghanistan in 2014Image: picture-alliance/dpa

When the UN Security Council authorized aerial force against Libya's Moammar Gadhafi in 2011, France rushed in while Germany demurred and abstained from a key vote at the United Nations. And Chancellor Angela Merkel's coalition wanted no part of a military intervention in Syria's civil war.

Nor did her predecessor, Gerhard Schröder, send troops to Iraq, a decision that irked the United States and dented German-American relations for some time.

Germany's largely pacifist constitution is the legacy of it experience in World War Two. In 1956, the Allies allowed West Germany to establish a military. Today, the country tends only to deploy troops on peacekeeping missions.

Standing by obligations

"De Maiziere's remarks were somewhat unusual and it's difficult to know what he intended," said Berthold Meyer with the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt. "Maybe he wanted to drive home a point that he had raised in previous speeches - that Germany stands by it obligations."

Germany, Meyer said, has nearly 7,000 troops deployed outside its borders, the second largest commitment among European countries after the United Kingdom.

"Or maybe de Maiziere spoke so bluntly so that von der Leyen doesn't have to keep saying 'we're doing enough' and can move on to other strategic areas, like Operation Active Endeavour," Meyer told DW.

Ursula von der Leyen at a troop visit in Afghanistan Photo: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images
Von der Leyen took a more conciliatory tone toward European allies in her speechImage: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images

The NATO mission, which operates in the Mediterranean Sea, aims to prevent the movement of terrorists and weapons. Germany, according to Meyer, is keen to have the operation extended and established on a European basis.

Old rivalries

Hilmar Linnenkamp with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs said he believes de Maiziere's remarks were possibly aimed at putting to rest old rivalries and forging a tighter European security alliance.

"France and Britain like to view themselves as the major military powers in Europe, with nuclear weapons and a seat in the UN Security Council, and they tend to see Germany as second-class player," he told DW. "But in Afghanistan, Mali and elsewhere, Germany has shown that it is willing to take action and commit troops."

Europe knows it needs greater cooperation on military matters, according to Linnenkamp, and that is where Germany can help, he said. "The country has a long tradition of pooling and sharing resources and cooperating at the military level because of its long integration in NATO," he added.

Linnenkamp believes de Maiziere possibly made his bold remarks to "take the flack" so that von der Leyen can flex her muscles in Brussels. "I think he was sending a signal of German confidence in European military policy," Linnenkamp said.