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De Maiziere saga drones on

June 13, 2013

An inquiry into German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere's role in an abandoned drone project has been scheduled to start later this month. The beleaguered minister has survived a no-confidence motion in parliament.

A U.S. Air Force MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle assigned to the California Air National Guard's 163rd Reconnaissance Wing flies near the Southern California Logistics Airport in Victorville, Calif., Jan. 7, 2012. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Effrain Lopez, released to dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

The opposition Left party's no-confidence motion against Thomas de Maiziere in the Bundestag on Thursday was a greater source of symbolism than suspense; 307 parliamentarians voted against the motion and 233 supported it.

Both parties in the ruling coalition have so far stood behind the defense minister over the cancellation of a drone project, around three months ahead of federal elections in Germany.

The Left party had argued in its submission that de Maiziere was personally responsible for some 500 million euros ($665 million) of taxpayer money spent on developing the unarmed "Euro Hawk" surveillance drone before the plans were dropped.

The paper also claimed that de Maiziere was "co-responsible for the lacking information and the misinformation [submitted to] the German Bundestag and the general public."

This was a reference to a long-running debate over when de Maiziere and his ministry knew that the plans were on rocky ground, and whether the plug should have been pulled sooner. The project was abandoned on May 15 over fears that obtaining flight clearance for the high-altitude planes in EU airspace would be either prohibitively expensive, or even impossible. The Euro Hawk plane itself was to be an adapted and improved version of the RQ-4B Global Hawk surveillance drone made by US firm Northrop Grumman.

Social Democrat whip Thomas Oppermann said on Thursday that all parties had agreed to start a parliamentary enquiry into the failed project at the end of June. Both sides of the aisle agree to this measure, but they debate what the inquest should focus on. The opposition want de Maiziere's specific involvement to be scrutinized, while the government say the entire project - begun under a Social Democrat and Green government in 2001 - should be included.

Leading Social Democrats and Green politicians have also said they thought de Maiziere should quit over the incident, with the SPD's parliamentary chairman Sigmar Gabriel repeating the mantra in an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung on Thursday.

Minister defends separate drone plans

In the parliamentary debate on the subject, de Maiziere said that the government was going ahead with separate plans to purchase armed drones for combat purposes.

"We need the abilities that these provide in order to protect our soldiers and our allies," the Christian Democrat told parliament. He said a decision on which model the Bundeswehr would purchase would likely be made at the end of the year and then announced to parliament. Media reports have long suggested that US- and Israeli-made drones would be the most likely candidates.

Economy Minister Philipp Rösler, who heads junior coalition partners, the the Free Democrats (FDP), reiterated his support for his cabinet colleague in the media on Thursday.

"Thomas de Maiziere has clarified the [Euro Hawk] situation respectably and answered the questions credibly," Rösler told the German regional daily Passauer Neue Presse in comments published on Thursday. "The FDP stands behind Thomas de Maiziere."

De Maiziere took over as defense minister in March 2011. He moved across from the interior ministry and replaced former party favorite Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg, who resigned amid a plagiarism scandal involving his doctoral thesis.

msh/ccp (AFP, dpa, Reuters)