Just days before the general election, a dispute has broken out within Chancellor Angela Merkel's governing coalition over German weapons exports. Earlier this week, SPIEGEL reported on a paper circulating among conservatives in parliament calling for "more boldness" when it comes to selling German-made arms abroad. Now, SPIEGEL ONLINE has learned, Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, a leading member of Merkel's coalition partner, the Free Democrats (FDP), has given voice to his displeasure.
In a meeting this week with a small number of staffers, Westerwelle said, according to one of those present in the meeting, that, "a restrictive control on arms exports is good for our country." The ministry source says that Westerwelle told confidants within the Foreign Ministry that, were the FDP to be part of Merkel's next governing coalition, it would not support any weakening of the restrictive policies governing German weapons exports.
Westerwelle's reaction places the issue in the center of the election campaign just days before voters head to the polls. "As long as I am foreign minister, the export regulations will remain as they are: restrictive and closely negotiated with our partners," he said. The foreign minister added that he stands for a "culture of military restraint," particularly when it comes to weapons deals. The Foreign Ministry said in a statement that it was "astonished" by the paper circulated among parliamentary conservatives.
'Regardless of Resistance'
In the paper which touched off the debate, leading defense experts within Chancellor Merkel's conservative faction demanded that regulations governing arms exports be "re-evaluated in the future and that the political support for exports be strengthened." They said this should be done "regardless of resistance by the media" or concerns among the populace.
The paper noted that "those who are proud of Germany's leadership in exports should also be proud of its defense technology." Though the paper is not part of the conservatives' campaign platform, it certainly reflects the party's policy leanings. Thus far, the issue of weapons exports has not played a significant role in the campaign, with elections scheduled for this Sunday.
Still, the paper touches one an issue that has triggered several controversies in recent years. Last year, for example, Merkel's government was heavily criticized for approving the delivery of tanks and armored vehicles to autocratic regimes in the Gulf such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Because the deals were rubber-stamped by the Federal Security Council, which meets in secret, the Merkel administration has refused to comment on the deals, which were first revealed by SPIEGEL.
The 'Merkel Doctrine'
The exports were indirectly defended with the argument that the recipients of the weapons were strategic partners to Germany even if they weren't democratic. The apparent shift in policy has come to be called the "Merkel Doctrine." By arming half-way reliable countries in crisis regions, Berlin hopes to be able to avoid participation in dangerous international military interventions abroad.
Westerwelle's comments are an apparent attempt to re-focus attention on the issue as his party battles for survival. Public opinion polls currently indicate that the FDP may fail to clear the five percent hurdle for representation in German parliament, the Bundestag. The message is clear: Those interested in preventing the expansion of weapons exports should vote for the FDP rather than for the conservatives. Westerwelle's comments likewise clearly highlight one of the many fissures in Merkel's coalition with the FDP.
Westerwelle's comments this week aren't the first time the defense minister has argued for more transparency when it comes to arms exports. In a SPIEGEL interview in May, he said: "We have to become more transparent. This means that reports on arms exports should be released more quickly in the future, once the respective decisions have been made."
He repeated the sentiments this week. According to the Foreign Ministry source, Westerwelle said that if any changes are made to Germany's arms export policy, it should be towards "a strengthening of the Bundestag's" voice on the issue.