Every time things get messy internationally, Germany opts to avoid taking a clear stance: it hides behind the law by framing inherently political issues as mere legal questions.
This has become particularly apparent during the ongoing Ukraine-Russia crisis. Even now, as a fully-fledged war on the European continent appears to be imminent, Chancellor Olaf Scholz refuses to deliver defensive weaponry to Ukraine, referring to the German law which bans exports to crisis regions.
When asked at the Munich Security Conference on Saturday if Germany’s refusal to ship armaments to Ukraine would be a failure if Russia invaded the country, Scholz blamed the law.
“Germany has had existing arms control regulations for a very long time, which are regulated by law and are very strict. And if we observe those, then at no point in time was it possible to operate such deliveries from Germany,” he said.
That is a monumental cop-out.
Laws are drafted, debated and approved by politicians, and they can be changed and adapted to new developments – by the very same people.
Furthermore, as German lawyers would agree, the existing legal framework regulating arms exports has exceptions that Germany has already used in the past.
The German government recently delivered arms to Afghanistan – the very epitome of a crisis country – and to Saudi Arabia during its military interference in Yemen’s civil war.
Berlin even sent weapons to sub-state actors. During the war against the Islamic State in 2015, thousands of firearms, armoured vehicles and missiles were delivered to Kurdish Peshmerga fighters.
Germany’s hesitance to help crisis-torn Ukraine by delivering weapons is not a legal but a political dilemma. The reference to the law is only meant to appease allies, as clear opposition to weapon shipments from Europe’s biggest country would spark controversy in NATO.
Besides, everyone knows that Germany, which considers itself the birthplace of the rule of law – or Rechtsstaatlichkeit – loves its laws and abides by them. Berlin hopes that NATO members understand that Germany has no choice while not risking Russian relations.
In the end, the hesitancy results from political traditions dating back to the time of former chancellor Willy Brandt’s Warsaw Genuflection during the Cold War.
Scholz’s Social Democrats have said many times they want to return to this policy of appeasing Russia while seeking close economic and political ties.
There are also domestic reasons behind Scholz’s reluctance: German voters are strongly pacifist and strongly oppose the Bundesrepublik’s military involvement, even if it consists of shipping arms to a close ally.
Still, being a free-rider in NATO was a viable option during the period of US global dominance that followed the fall of the Iron Curtain. However, in today’s multipolar world, the EU needs a strong Germany that defends European and Western interests with a clear voice.
To be taken seriously, Germany must awake from its slumber and take a clear stand on issues concerning international security.
Hiding behind the neutrality of law is simply not an option anymore.
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Views are the author’s.