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Earlier this month, a heated debate about Germany’s future participation in NATO’s nuclear sharing programme kicked off. It began with an interview that Rolf Mützenich, the chairman of Germany’s Social Democratic (SPD) party parliamentary group, gave to the Tagesspiegel daily, where he advocated for a withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany and an end to Germany’s participation in the NATO nuclear sharing programme, calling it a relic of the Cold War.
At the same time, he did not, however, challenge the need for NATO’s nuclear deterrence and for the US nuclear umbrella over Europe. Germany, he claimed, would continue to actively shape NATO’s policy in the Nuclear Planning Group after withdrawing from the programme. Mützenich was backed by the leaders of the SPD, Saskia Esken and Norbert Walter-Borjans, but opposed by the SPD representatives responsible for foreign and security policy in the German government as well as Foreign Minister and SPD member Heiko Maas.
On 4 May, the spokesman for the federal government, Steffen Seibert, confirmed Germany’s continued participation in NATO’s nuclear sharing programme, which he described as an important element of NATO’s credible deterrence. In the binding 2018 coalition agreement between the SPD and Christian Democratic Union (CDU) it is stipulated that US nuclear weapons can be withdrawn from Germany only on the condition of a worldwide nuclear disarmament.
The Context: a New Dual-Capable Aircraft for the Luftwaffe
This discussion provided the context for the recent announcement by the defence minister and CDU leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer on the choice of the new combat aircraft for the Luftwaffe. In April 2020, the German Ministry of Defence (BMVg) presented its long-awaited plans to procure 45 Eurofighter aircraft and 45 US F/A-18 jets (30 E/F Super Hornets and 15 EA-18G Growlers) to replace the 40-year-old Tornado fleet that is planned to be phased out by 2030 at the latest. The Super Hornets were to replace the Tornados in the role of a dual-capable aircraft to carry US nuclear weapons in the NATO nuclear sharing programme. The choice of a 4th generation aircraft for this purpose was not an optimal one (other European allies will soon use 5th generation F-35As). The BMVg’s plans were a result of conflicting political, industrial and military interests and at the same time a sign that Berlin wants to continue to invest both in US and European military cooperation. The BMVg’s plans were also said to have been presented to the SPD representatives in the government: Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and Vice Chancellor Olaf Scholz (they are both part of the moderate wing of the SPD) saw and evidently approved these plans.
The Leftward Shift in the SPD
Mützenich’s interview was thus a big surprise for many in Berlin. Despite the lack of a new official position on nuclear sharing in the SPD, the leader of the parliamentary group publicly expressed his opposition to the purchase of a new dual-capable aircraft for the Luftwaffe, questioned Germany’s participation in nuclear sharing and considered a withdrawal of the US nuclear weapons from Germany, all against the binding 2018 coalition agreement. Despite the opposition from the moderate SPD representatives it seems that Mützenich’s stance is widely shared in the party.
The left-leaning SPD wing has begun to dominate both the parliamentary group and the party after the choice of the new leadership in the internal party elections last December. To the surprise of many, the current Vice Chancellor and Minister of Finance both lost to two left-leaning and little-known candidates. The outcome of this election showed a general frustration and a wish for new leftist policies in the SPD. In terms of security policy it is not only the Mützenich interview that is disruptive. It is also the recent nomination of a left-wing SPD representative for the post of the parliamentary Ombudsman for the German armed forces, which generated widespread criticism inside and outside of the party, causing resignations from SPD members who deal with the armed forces. The prominent German historian and SPD member, Heinrich August Winkler, wrote in an article of the risk of ‘a dramatic revision of the social democratic understanding of the German security policy’ and warned the SPD against renouncing Germany’s close alignment with the West, the so-called Westbindung.
The Domestic Consequences
The lack of decision to purchase a new dual-capable aircraft would mean a gradual pull back from NATO arrangements. This will not have any immediate consequences but the shift in the SPD’s position is a factor which might undermine Germany’s participation in NATO’s nuclear sharing within 10 years. In this term of parliament the SPD might block the preparatory procurement phase of the F/A-18 aircraft, which is planned only after the next Bundestag elections in 2021. However, due to the change of the SPD position, the purchase after 2021 might be even more controversial. Should there be a coalition between the CDU and the Green Party, the procurement may survive; however, it will be made more difficult by deep divisions in the Green Party over its approach to nuclear weapons. A coalition of the Greens, the SPD and the Left Party will most likely lead to the deal not being finalised. Such a coalition may even decide on an earlier withdrawal from the nuclear sharing programme. There is relatively high public support for such a decision. According to surveys conducted in recent years, 60–70% of Germans are in favour of withdrawing US nuclear weapons from Germany. The chances of purchasing the new aircraft and extending Germany’s participation in nuclear sharing would be highest if a (less-likely) coalition between the CDU and the Free Democratic Party was formed. Given the above factors, a slow phase-out of Germany’s participation in NATO’s nuclear sharing should not be ruled out due to the gradual withdrawal of the Tornado jets capable of carrying out nuclear strikes and to the lack of purchase of a new dual-capable aircraft for the Luftwaffe.
The Impact on NATO
Germany’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear sharing arrangements would negatively affect European security, including NATO’s eastern flank. From a military point of view, according to some experts, NATO’s nuclear sharing programme in its present form is losing importance due to the operational advantages of other (US) nuclear weapons delivery systems. From the political perspective, however, nuclear sharing is still important for the credibility of nuclear deterrence in Europe and for NATO’s cohesion. Berlin’s withdrawal from the programme, together with the withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Germany, would be perceived by Russia as a sign of a serious US–European disengagement. Furthermore, it would be detrimental to the US–German political–military cooperation that is vital for European security and the defence of NATO’s eastern flank. Germany’s withdrawal might lead to similar reactions from other European allies participating in the nuclear sharing arrangements, such as Belgium or the Netherlands, whose societies are equally opposed to nuclear weapons. The end of NATO’s nuclear sharing programme would end the risk and responsibility sharing between the US and its European allies in nuclear deterrence, deepen US–European and intra-European rifts over security policy, and decrease the level of nuclear deterrence in Europe. However, opening a discussion about a reform of NATO’s nuclear sharing by including new allies into the arrangements, or deploying new US systems in Europe might deepen the already existing divides among the allies. But, if Germany withdraws from nuclear sharing arrangements, NATO will need to face up to difficult discussions. To prevent such a scenario, the German SPD and the Green Party need to be more aware of the fact that Germany’s security policy choices are closely linked to the security of Europe, and especially its eastern allies.
Justyna Gotkowska coordinates the Regional Security Programme at the Centre for Eastern Studies (OSW) in Warsaw. Her contribution is an expanded version of an OSW Analysis.
The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.
BANNER IMAGE: Heiko Maas is the German Minister of Foreign Affairs. Courtesy of Arno Mikkor/Flickr.