When the NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels on Tuesday afternoon to discuss the future of the alliance, one of them will be absent: Germany's Thomas de Maizière. He will instead be at the Bellevue Palace in Berlin, where the cabinet ministers are to receive their discharge certificates from President Joachim Gauck. De Maizière will not make it in time for the start of the meeting at NATO headquarters.
That is doubly painful for de Maizière, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU). First, the minister -- who came under fire earlier this year amid reports that his Defense Ministry had tried to cover up a scandal over the bungled purchase of a multimillion euro surveillance drone -- could potentially have a political future at the top of the defense alliance if Danish NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen steps down in the coming year. Second, it means de Maizière is forced to relinquish the floor in Brussels to the eloquent French defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian -- with whom Berlin is currently embroiled in a dispute.
Two weeks ago, German officials in Brussels and other European capitals sounded the alarm. France was trying "to discredit" the German proposal to reform NATO, according to a presentation given to de Maizière on Oct. 9. Paris was "making a huge effort in the capitals and at NATO headquarters to pull over to their side those countries that have remained open, but had not yet clearly backed the plan," said the officials. Their conclusion: "We have to count on France's fundamental opposition."
Interference in National Sovereignty?
The resistance of the French is directed against de Maizière's reform proposal, which the defense ministers will first address at the meeting on Tuesday. The German concept envisages that the alliance in future be divided into "clusters," which will each be led by one of the larger NATO member states.
This principle has already been applied to foreign missions on a case-by-case basis, such as when Germany took the lead for other allies in northern Afghanistan.
But going forward, Berlin wants such groupings to be firmly anchored within NATO's infrastructure. "What is new is the extent, the intensity and the scope of its application," says the paper that de Maizière distributed to other NATO members. The plan is that that these states pool their military capabilities and even join together to procure new weapons systems and equipment.
France is not the only NATO member state that sees such a step as potentially infringing on its national sovereignty. Spain and Slovakia have also expressed caution in the NATO council. Even countries that welcome the German proposals, including the United States and the United Kingdom, are pushing the question of how smaller member states, which lack certain military capabilities, can rely on Germany's solidarity if joint missions abroad must be approved every time by the Bundestag, Germany's lower house of parliament.
Putting the Brakes on Syria Mission
Germany has not proved itself in the past to be the most reliable of allies. The NATO council began flights in Afghanistan with AWACS surveillance aircraft without Germany because Berlin hesitated for so long. Germany abstained from the United Nations Security Council vote on the Libya intervention in 2011 and resolutely discouraged NATO from toying with the idea of a mission in Syria.
The question of parliamentary approval is not currently being confronted among de Maizière's inner circle. But German government military experts see it differently. "A functional defensive alliance is founded on shared risk and trust in the mutual solidarity of its members," wrote Ekkehard Brose, who until this year was an envoy in the German representation at NATO in Brussels, in a study for the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP). Parliamentary approval could lead Germany "in a future NATO operation to the brink of an exit from the integrated command structure."
De Maizière knows that this topic could prove explosive in the ongoing coalition negotiations between Merkel's conservatives and the center-left SPD, who are strongly against a relaxation of the rules governing involvement in foreign conflicts, even if individual voices seem willing to compromise. "The participation of the Bundestag may be reduced if it is deemed relevant due to the contractually specified military integration," wrote Dieter Wiefelspütz, an SPD lawmaker and legal expert, last year.
In the meantime, the French have signalled their willingness to talk -- they are prepared to accept the German proposal at least as a basis for discussion. De Maizière had wanted to use the meeting of NATO defense ministers as a chance to win over some of the skeptics. His staff initially managed to have him placed at the top of the much fought-over list of speakers. He had the opportunity, they proudly reported in the ministerial submission, "as the first speaker after the general secretary, to effectively and sustainably set the tone" for further discussion of the proposed reforms. But despite these rosy initial assessments, what now lies ahead of de Maizière is a steep uphill battle.