The German parliament has begun its enquiry into the failed “Euro Hawk” surveillance drone project. Three months before general elections, the heat is on for the defense minister, one of Angela Merkel's closest allies.
When did the German defense minister know that the drone project was doomed to fail? That is the crucial question for the opposition members in Wednesday's parliamentary defense committee meeting.
When Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere pulled the plug on the “Euro Hawk” project on May 15 there was an immediate public outcry over the waste of the 500 million euros ($665 million) of taxpayers' money that had already been spent on developing the unarmed surveillance drone.
The political opposition was quick to point out that the minister should have known early on that flight clearance was necessary for the high-altitude planes, an adapted version of the RQ-4B Global Hawk surveillance drone made by US firm Northrop Grumman.
German media had reported early on that such clearance for EU airspace would be too expensive, or even impossible to obtain.
In his first statement on the matter de Maiziere said he first knew the plans would fail just two days before his decision to scrap the project.
Political observers have deemed this unlikely – unless ministry officials had intentionally withheld information, which in turn would indicate that de Maiziere was not in control of his own ministry.
De Maiziere has since sought to clarify his stance, saying May 13 was the day on which he was sufficiently certain of the stoppage to broach the topic in parliament, but that he had become aware of the issue much earlier.
The opposition Left Party argued that de Maiziere was "co-responsible for the lacking information and the misinformation [submitted to] the German Bundestag and the general public."
Leading opposition Social Democrats and Green politicians said they thought de Maiziere should quit over the incident.
The opposition members in the parliamentary defense committee want to scrutinize de Maiziere's specific involvement, while the ruling party MPs demand the management of the entire project should be investigated - as it began in 2001 under the previous Social Democrat and Green government.
Pressure mounts as election nears
De Maiziere, who took over as defense minister in March 2011, is a close ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has supported him unequivocally.
Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble attributed the heavy pressure de Maiziere was facing to Germany's upcoming federal elections in September.
"It's obvious that this is an attempt, by virtue of splitting hairs in a rather paltry manner, to conduct an election campaign," Schäuble said on public television.
The parliamentary committee has scheduled six meetings to hear a total of 18 witnesses and intends to conclude its investigation by the end of July.
The government, meanwhile, has announced it was going ahead with separate plans to purchase armed drones for combat purposes.
rg/hc (AFP, dpa, Reuters)