A much-needed alliance: why the UK-Germany defence relationship is more crucial than ever

By Blanche de Biolley

Just three countries – France, the UK, and Germany – account for 60% of the combined defence budgets of all 28 EU member states. This is undoubtedly an eye-catching fact. On the one hand, it demonstrates the military heft of the ‘big three’, but on the other, it points to just how reliant the EU is on a small number of leading states for its defence.

But despite their collective military strength, relations and cooperation between these three countries are not as strong as they could be. Indeed, what could be a powerful and valuable triumvirate is, in fact, incomplete because one side of the triangle remains lacking: the UK has yet to build deep cooperation with Germany. While the UK and France have deepened bilateral ties over the past 20 years, and France and Germany have developed numerous joint defence and security initiatives, a deep alliance between Germany and the UK has never been built.

For much of the last 20 years, the UK and Germany seemed destined to simply carry on cooperating under the mantle of NATO. But change may be afoot: contrary to the expectations of many, in November 2015, the UK lifted Germany to ‘tier one’ status for the first time, a title that had previously only been bestowed upon its major allies France and the US.

This has triggered much deliberation about the intensification of UK-German defence collaboration. In practice, there has been activity, most recently crucial meetings of UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson and his German counterpart Ursula von der Leyen a few months ago in London to discuss strengthening defence ties, as well as the successful Ministerial Equipment Capability Cooperation talks in Berlin in February.

So why has such an obviously important defence relationship been so slow to emerge? In part, because diverging defence and security strategies have kept the UK-Germany relationship at a certain stalemate ever since the end of the Cold War. Their stances had been separate for quite some time, the UK being one of the few countries with full-spectrum capability, and possessing a self-awareness of the role it wants to play on the international security stage.

This role has been an interventionist one, as seen in its participation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya. Germany, despite being one of the largest contributors to global peace-keeping missions (as demonstrated lately by its 600 soldiers sent to Mali), does not have full-spectrum capability since it does not possess a nuclear arsenal nor aircraft carriers, and has traditionally been reluctant to participate in large-scale military operations abroad, such as the war in Libya in 2011.

However, such discrepancies, which have in the past set them apart on the issue of military cooperation, are less significant, and a new security relationship is on the horizon. The war in Afghanistan has demonstrated that Germany has become more involved in international military operations. It is also investing in several new pieces of weaponry, some of which are developed in partnership with the UK. Indeed, both are now collaborating on several military R&D projects, such as the Airbus A400M military transport aircraft and the Boxer wheeled vehicle program.

This is beneficial to the UK, as the MoD’s finances, often volatile at the best of times, are likely to be even more so after Brexit. There is a genuine risk that the UK will not be able to fund some of its planned R&D projects. A recent example is the debate over the feasibility of the Type 31e frigates ordered by the navy, due to a lack of funding. Germany, in contrast, is an economically strong country which could benefit from the UK’s military intelligence and knowledge to develop new initiatives. Their few ongoing projects could therefore be a good start to a solid partnership.

Moreover, although both countries’ defence spending had been on the decline since the end of the Cold War, they have both announced that they would raise their expenses to face emerging threats. While the UK was already meeting the NATO defence spending target of 2% of GDP, its defence budget will be raised by another £800 million in this financial year. The German government announced that its defence budget would increase by £5 billion by 2022, an increase of nearly 13%. However, despite the German commitment to move towards the NATO target, this will only account for a little over 1% of its GDP. Although both efforts may have been partly motivated by US pressure on NATO allies to reach the target, this does show a general trend of wider consciousness that the world is becoming less secure than it has been since the end of the Cold War – and that both countries are fully aware of it.

As the UK is leaving the EU, it may be forced out of important structural parts of its defence system, such as the European Defence Fund, an initiative that had been launched to support investment in research and the development of high-technology weapons. Also, when out of the EU, it will become more complicated for the UK to partake in Common Security and Defence Policy missions. This reinforces the UK’s need for more bilateral military alliances, and Germany being one of the three most prominent European military powers, and a very wealthy ally, is a viable candidate.

It is an apocryphal story, but Henry Kissinger is supposed to have once asked: Who do I call if I want to call Europe? Well, in the future, it does not look likely to be Theresa May: the UK could lose a significant amount of its influence in Europe as a result of leaving the EU. If the UK wants to retain or even expand its influence as a prominent military power, it should therefore develop bilateral relationships with economically and militarily strong EU countries such as Germany. At the same time, with ever-evolving and emerging threats, such as terrorism, cyber attacks and unstable states, Germany should strongly consider the benefits of bilateral partnerships with similarly minded countries. As such, these talks about strengthening defence ties are a welcome initiative and could be important for both countries’ futures.


Blanche de Biolley was an intern at the Policy Institute working on defence and security issues.

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