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German troops in Kunduz, Afghanistan
German troops would protect aid workers and help refugeesImage: AP

U-turn on Libya

April 8, 2011

After taking a hard stance in abstaining from a UN Security Council vote on a no-fly zone over Libya, Germany looks set to agree to send troops to the war-torn country in a humanitarian role should the UN request it.


While joining Russia and China in abstaining, Berlin stood alone among Europe's biggest powers in the vote last month, angering traditional allies France, Britain and the US by stating that it did not want German soldiers to participate in military intervention in Libya.

The German government even ordered its warships away from the North African nation's coast in an effort to distance its forces from the international intervention that followed the vote.

The decision also caused controversy domestically with former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer claiming that he felt "ashamed" of the German government's "failure" to act. Other politicians across the political spectrum made public their fears that Germany had isolated itself internationally by abstaining and breaking ranks with the Western alliance.

It was even suggested by some that the German government wanted to avoid an unpopular military entanglement in the Middle East because of looming state elections, which both Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative alliance and the free-market liberal FDP party, the junior party in the coalition, performed badly in.

However, despite the political wrangling, surveys showed that a majority of the public backed Germany's pacifist stance on Libya.

Germany will heed humanitarian call

Now, however, it seems that Germany is now ready to allow Bundeswehr boots on Libyan soil should the United Nations require an international humanitarian effort to evacuate refugees and protect aid workers.

"In the last cabinet meeting (on Wednesday) the basic readiness was expressed ... that if a request were made to the EU, Germany would live up to its responsibilities," government spokesman Steffen Seibert told reporters Friday.

German navy warship and helicopter
German navy ships could return to assist in EU aid effortsImage: picture alliance/YPS collection

The Tagesspiegel newspaper reported Friday that plans were also being discussed to reverse the decision on removing the German navy from the region and sending ships back to Libya to assist the European Union efforts to provide food and aid.

At the start of this month, the EU decided to set up a military mission to back humanitarian aid efforts in Libya, providing the UN requested it to do so within a four-month window. The UN has yet to signal its intent.

"If there was a request from the United Nations, we would naturally not shirk our responsibility," Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle told a Bundestag debate on Friday.

Westerwelle is expected in Luxembourg on Tuesday to meet with EU foreign ministers to discuss the issue while NATO foreign ministers will travel to Berlin later in the week.

The German government is expected to reiterate its stance that German troops won't be involved in any aggressive military operations if and when a plan is put before the Bundestag parliament for approval.

Christian Lindner, the general secretary of the FDP, told the Passauer Neue Presse newspaper Thursday: "We are ready to accept our responsibility in the humanitarian consequences of the war but the Bundeswehr will not intervene militarily in Libya."

Philipp Missfelder, foreign policy spokesman for the parliamentary wing of Merkel's conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) told the Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper that Germany had a moral duty to get involved while, in the same article, his FDP counterpart Rainer Stinner said that Germany's decision would hopefully end the questions surrounding Germany's commitment to the NATO alliance.

Germany to re-enter the fold?

"I think the German decision is damage repair essentially," Ulrike Guerot, head of the Berlin office of the European Council for Foreign Affairs, told Deutsche Welle. "The international isolation and harsh criticism was shocking for Germany."

Angela Merkel and Guido Westerwelle
The Germans were feeling the pressure internationallyImage: AP

"It's a move to show solidarity with the international community, Germany's European partners and the transatlantic relationship so the pressure which is responsible for this shift has probably come from the international elites."

"Germany doesn't like to get involved militarily but it likes being isolated from the international community on key issues even less," Dr. Henning Meyer, a German political expert at the Department of Global Governance at the London School of Economics, told Deutsche Welle.

Guerot said that the decision was a good 'compromise' internationally but also domestically, adding that the German people would be happy with a 'humanitarian' mission as long as there was no military engagement.

"Many people were concerned about German isolation with around 40 percent of Germans polled saying that they wanted Germany to engage or at least to support the UN resolution so I think people are waking up to the fact that humanitarian engagement by Germany would actually be a good thing," she said. "Additionally it would benefit Germany as it would once again be embedded in international cooperation."

Angry reactions to u-turn

German Chancellor Angela Merkel briefs
The chancellor faces criticism on a number of key issuesImage: dapd

The u-turn has already provoked an angry reaction from sections of the German opposition with the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD) and the Green Party accusing the government of "flip-flopping" on the issue.

"One gets the feeling, they lack direction and they just toss a coin," Agnieszka Malczak from the Greens said. "Depending on which way it goes, they make the decision. There is no real foundation, no basis and no common line."

Meanwhile, during Friday's Bundestag debate, the SPD's Michael Groschek asked how Libyans were going to be protected without armed force being required while the Left party's parliamentary group co-leader Gregor Gysi said it was a contradiction to send armed soldiers into Libya on a peace mission.

"The criticism of the government over Libya has to be seen in the context of the wider attacks the opposition have been mounting," Meyer said. "There have been a number of u-turns of late, the most high profile being on nuclear energy, but when it comes to the opposition's stance on Libya, the SPD or Greens may have handled it better but they would not have done things much differently."

The FDP's Lindner rejected claims that the government was reversing its decision, adding that the humanitarian option had always been part of Germany's stance and had even be announced by Westerwelle before the UN Security Council vote on Libya last month.

The questions, however, on how far protection of civilians by armed Bundeswehr troops may go remained unanswered.

Author: Nick Amies

Editor: Rob Mudge

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