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Germany: Scholz hails 'more active' defense role

June 22, 2023

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz focused mainly on foreign policy while briefing lawmakers. He pledged support for Ukraine "for as long as it takes," and again promised Germany would spend 2% of GDP on defense in 2024.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stood at the podium in the Bundestag parliament in Berlin, giving a government address to lawmakers. June 22, 2023.
Schröder addressed parliament mainly on issues of foreign policy ahead of an EU summit next weekImage: Kay Nietfeld/dpa

Chancellor Olaf Scholz told the Bundestag parliament on Thursday that Germany would be increasing defense expenditure, would continue to support Ukraine, and would be lobbying Turkey to allow Sweden to join NATO, possibly in time for the alliance's leaders' summit next month in Vilnius

"The most important task of every state, every society lies in ensuring the security of its citizens — without security there can be no freedom and no prosperity," Scholz said to open his address. "Russia's war of aggression against Ukraine has thrust this connection into our view in a particularly atrocious way." 

'Far-reaching' steps taken in response

Briefing parliament, Scholz said Germany had responded to this in a number of ways by "taking far-reaching strategic decisions." 

He reiterated Germany's position that it would continue to support Ukraine "for as long as is necessary" in its defensive war against Russia. He said that German military and economic aid to Ukraine combined totaled €16.8 billion (roughly $17 billion), and "clearly shows: we stand firmly at Ukraine's side."  

Germany was also starting to take a "considerably more active role" in protecting its own territory and that of its NATO allies, Scholz said. 

He said European governments were collectively "laying the foundations for a Europe that's more capable of action." 

"And we will do everything necessary to protect our national security against any threat," Scholz said. 

The chancellor alluded to the government's publication last week of a national security strategy, "the first of its kind" for Germany, as Scholz noted, which he said reinforced these positions. 

The chancellor pointed out the national security document was first conceived before Russia's invasion of Ukraine and all that followed, but said it had become more necessary since. 

"These events have fundamentally changed the security environment for our country in the space of 16 months," he said. "They underline how necessary — and yes, how overdue — it is to put the protection of citizens against any potential threats in the center of our political arena." 

Government statements in parliament, usually delivered by the chancellor, are regular occurrences in Germany; Thursday's speech nominally served the purpose of briefing the chamber ahead of next week's EU summit. 

Germany to hit 2% of GDP defense spending? 

The chancellor thanked parliament for approving a draft budget last week that included the acquisition of new military equipment for Germany's Bundeswehr. He said Berlin was determined that Europe "lives up to its responsibility to contribute to protection within NATO." 

Germany had faced longstanding criticism from Washington for its defense spending levels, which for years have been well below the NATO target of 2% of GDP.

But Russia's invasion of Ukraine intensified these calls for Germany to spend more, and Berlin also faced criticism for its early reluctance to do away with longstanding traditions of not exporting offensive weaponry to hot conflicts. 

US President Joe Biden recently said alongside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg that "I expect Allies to agree that 2% of GDP for defense has to be a minimum," no longer a non-binding target, to "invest in our shared security."

Scholz told the Bundestag again on Thursday that the German government currently plans to spend 2% of GDP in 2024 "for the first time in decades," at least if its current budget and GDP projections prove accurate. 

"With this, we underline what I said in this house on February 27, 2022: Our promise of mutual defense in NATO is valid with no ifs and no buts," Scholz said, referring to one of his first major parliamentary speeches in the aftermath of Russia's invasion. 

'Firm conviction' that Sweden should sit at table at NATO summit

Scholz told parliament that next month's NATO leaders' summit in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, would send "a strong signal of trans-Atlantic cooperation." 

He said leaders were planning an array of new defensive measures, for instance regarding the protection of key underwater infrastructure, discussed since the damage to the Nord Stream gas pipelines. 

He also repeated a recurring plea to his Turkish counterpart.

"I am of the firm conviction that, as well as new member Finland, Sweden should also sit at the summit table," Scholz said. "And I appeal to the re-elected Turkish head of state [Recep Tayyip] Erdogan to clear the path for this, as we all collectively agreed to do in Madrid last summer," referring to last year's NATO leaders' summit. 

Turkey, after delaying a decision on Finland's NATO ambitions for months, continues to do so in Sweden's case. Erdogan had hinted several times during a heated presidential campaign that he might be ready to move after the vote but has since voiced renewed skepticism.

Thursday's statement had an unusually global feel to it, with Scholz devoting most of his time to an array of foreign policy issues rather than domestic ones.

He also spoke of the importance of bilateral relations and improved cooperation with France and about his talks earlier this week with China's new premier, Li Qiang

Berlin welcomes Chinese premier

Scholz said he had appealed to Li to refrain from any use of violence in the South China Sea or the Taiwan Strait. 

"We decisively reject any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the South China Sea with violence or coercion. That applies particularly to Taiwan," Scholz said. 

The chancellor also said Germany looked upon the human rights and rule of law situation in China "with concern." 

Opposition accuses Scholz of foreign policy failures

However, opposition politicians accused Scholz of being too timid during Li's visit.

Center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) leader Friedrich Merz noted how no questions were permitted during Scholz's press conference with Li, apparently at China's insistence.

"You are cowering, here in Berlin, when faced with such overbearance from the Chinese leadership," Merz said of Scholz, arguing that "both your predecessors would not have accepted this and would rather have threatened to cancel the trip than to tolerate such authoritarian behavior."

Merz also claimed that during Scholz's tenure, relations with France "have reached a low point," again saying former chancellors Angela Merkel and Gerhard Schröder had handled Franco-German ties better.

The CDU leader argued that disagreements within Scholz's three-party coalition, currently struggling to hold a common line on several policies, were spilling over into and complicating European politics. 

msh/sms (AFP, dpa, Reuters) 

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