German foreign minister hits at US’s Nato spending demand

Sigmar Gabriel: ‘It’s totally unrealistic to believe that Germany would increase its defence spending from €35bn now to €70bn’ © EPA

Germany’s foreign minister has pushed back against Washington as Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, ramps up US demands for more military spending by Nato allies in Europe. 

The escalating wrangle over spending dominated talks in Brussels where Mr Tillerson and Sigmar Gabriel, his new German counterpart, attended their first Nato meeting since taking office. 

US President Donald Trump has railed against Nato allies for not meeting a long-term goal to bring defence spending towards a target of 2 per cent of economic output. In private talks with ministers, Mr Tillerson said Nato’s ability to secure the transatlantic community depended on increased spending by allies. 

But Mr Gabriel said there was no 2 per cent target as such, and there was more to security than military spending. 

“It’s totally unrealistic to believe that Germany would increase its defence spending from €35bn now to €70bn,” he told reporters in Brussels. He added: “We respect the 2 per cent guideline — but we should not move the goalposts: it was formulated in Wales [at a 2014 summit] as a guideline and not as a goalpost.”

The combative foreign minister’s attack exposes tensions in Germany’s ruling coalition ahead of September’s parliamentary election, when Angela Merkel will run for a fourth term. Mr Gabriel’s Social Democrats, who are junior coalition partners to the chancellor’s bloc, back lower military budgets than Ms Merkel’s conservatives. 

Nato figures show that German military expenditure rose to 1.2 per cent of gross domestic product in 2016 from 1.18 per cent in 2015. Allies agreed in 2014 to work towards a 2 per cent threshold by 2024, although Mr Trump insists they should move faster. 

1.2%

Proportion of GDP devoted to German military expenditure in 2016

Mr Gabriel said: “We are increasing our defence spending. We are doing more.” But he added Berlin would have put €70bn into its armed forces if military spending reached 2 per cent. “I know no politician in Germany who thinks that this is something you can reach, or that it even would be desirable to do so.” 

The minister’s comments are an abrupt challenge to Mr Tillerson, who told reporters he wanted to ensure the alliance “has all of the resources, financial and otherwise, that are necessary for Nato to fulfil its mission.” 

Ms Merkel has pledged to uphold the 2 per cent spending goal. Her spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said on Friday that the government would continue to increase defence spending “because we know it is necessary and makes sense to further strengthen our armed forces”. 

Only five of 28 Nato members meet the 2 per cent threshold, which prompted Mr Trump, during his election campaign, to accuse allies of freeloading on US defence largesse. Senior administration figures have qualified American support for the organisation even as they insist the US remains committed to Nato. 

At his first alliance meeting in February, defence secretary James Mattis threatened to moderate the US commitment to Nato if allies did not speed up plans to spend more on defence. 

Echoing Mr Mattis, Mr Tillerson said allies that do not have a concrete plan to spend 2 per cent of GDP on defence by 2024 should establish one immediately. “Allies that have a plan to reach the 2 per cent guideline need to accelerate efforts and show results,” he said.

He added that Mr Trump supported Nato but it was no longer sustainable for the US to maintain a “disproportionate share” of alliance defence spending. 

Nato is pressing allies to adopt a plan to boost spending at a meeting of leaders in May at which Mr Trump will open the new headquarters of the alliance in Brussels. 

But a senior Nato official said there was no consensus among ministers about the division between spending, military capabilities and operational commitments in such plans. “There’s a recognition that we need to have further discussions around to see what the balance is between the three,” the official said. 

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