A Conversation with H.E. Sabine Sparwasser

Touraj Riazi Global, Interviews, Politics & Society

12 minute read

Touraj Riazi had the privilege of interviewing H.E. Sabine Sparwasser at the German Embassy in Ottawa. H.E. Sparwasser currently serves as the Ambassador of the Federal Republic of Germany to Canada.

H.E. Sparwasser was joined by Lieutenant Colonel Nico Hülshoff, the German Defence Attaché to Canada.

What role does research and innovation play in Germany’s economic and industrial power?

Research and innovation are key to Germany’s economic and industrial success because Germany, unlike Canada, is not a large country, rich in resources. Germany is basing its success on innovation, educating the brightest minds and developing innovative ideas that then lead to products on the world market. This is part of our strength as a trading nation.

Germany spends 3% of its GDP on research and development (R&D) alone. R&D is also a top priority in Germany’s bilateral relation with Canada. There are many major scientific organizations in Germany such as the Helmholtz Association, Fraunhofer Society or Max Planck Institute. All have established very close relations with Canada. One of the best examples is located with the Max Planck Centre on Extreme and Quantum Photonics at the University of Ottawa. It is a state of the art fundamental research science centre.

These close connections apply as much to the civil sector as they do to defence.

What benefits would Germany accrue from a defence R&D programme in the EU budget?

Germany is very convinced that promoting cooperation and cost-saving amongst member states is beneficial. Producing state of the art defence technology and equipment requires combining Germany’s abilities and resources with other members.

Defence procurement in Europe right now is highly fragmented. Amongst the various militaries in the EU there are about 29 different types of warships, 16 different types of fighter jets and 19 different types of tanks and armoured vehicles. All together, Europeans spend 6 times the amount of money on as many different elements to their defence equipment while achieving only a fraction of the US’s firepower.  This is a huge financial waste. It is much better for our tax-payers if Europeans work closer together.

Cooperation and a joint budget are also catalysts for a competitive and innovative European defence industry. This includes the many smaller and medium enterprises that exist throughout the defence supply chain. Their success ensures we remain fit for the 21st century.

Are there specific electronic warfare operations that Germany’s recently established Cyber and Information Space Command has been designed to conduct?

Last year, Germany established a new service branch called Cyber and Information Space. It is a work in progress and will further strengthen our own cyber defence capabilities and IT competence.

It will ultimately group together all existing military structures that deal with IT, cyber security, military reconnaissance and geo-information, as well as with psychological warfare. A target has been set to have a service branch that employs more than 13,000 people, which would be larger than the German Navy.

A lot remains until reaching 13,000, but recruitment launches focusing on young people leaving high school and university have started offering IT careers as a soldier in this area. Such a specialized gap cannot be filled within a few months alone. Canada is among the other countries that have been following very much the same line of strategy and Germany would certainly welcome cooperation on that front.

Moving on to EU and national defence. Will Germany continue taking steps to adapt its force structure, particularly shortcomings in its Type 212 submarines, to the new threat environment?  

The general answer is yes. There is a large understanding in Germany, reflected even in recent coalition negotiations from all parties involved, that shortcomings in its force readiness and equipment must be addressed. I think there is a clear political will to increase investments in defence spending on behalf of the forthcoming government and there will be measures taken along these lines.

One good example of a specific step taken by Germany to combat the shortcomings in its submarine fleet is the cooperation established with Norway. Germany and Norway have decided to build new submarines together. Norway will buy four new submarines and Germany will purchase two, increasing its readiness up to 8 submarines. Most importantly, this is the first time Germany and Norway are having identical submarines.

Germany is open to work in the same way and along the same lines with other NATO partners because of the belief that this is a very good way to address the security challenges in NATO’s northern flank, including the Baltic and the North Sea as well as the Atlantic.

Does Germany’s recent force integration with Romania and the Czech Republic set a precedent for broader EU military integration?

Multi-nationality and integration have for a long time been key elements of the Bundeswehr. Germany first begun military integration with the French and we have progressed further with them and the Dutch in integrated force structures.

LtCol Hülshoff: The German-French Brigade exists already since 1989 and with the Dutch we cooperate in a corps (1 German/Netherlands Corps) since 1995.

Since these were our initial partners in the EU, cooperation with them is naturally the furthest advanced. But, it has always been a desire to continue to increase the cooperation and steps of integration with other countries. With Romania and Bulgaria being NATO and EU members, it is normal that we would start working along the same lines with them.

What can be said of Germany’s investment in civilian infrastructure to improve military force readiness?

The need to invest in Germany’s infrastructure has also been part of the understanding in recent coalition talks. Some of Germany’s infrastructure is aging. There are shortcomings when it comes to the digitalization of Germany and a real push is needed in terms of modernization. I think that goes for the civil sector as much as it does for defence.

Why did Germany feel it necessary to temporarily extend its military deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Mali by 3 months?

The German Armed Forces are always mandated by Parliament. Conducting prolonged missions abroad also requires a vote to be repeated at regular intervals to renew the mandate.

An election was just held and there is a new government that has not yet been formed, so day-to-day affairs are still being conducted by the old government. It is an understanding in German political circles that one waits for the formation of the new government before making major political decisions. But, we also could not interrupt those missions because they were playing a crucial role in securing the Northern parts of Afghanistan, in Mali in the fight against terrorism and in Iraq against ISIS. It was, therefore, absolutely important to extend these missions.

Parliament did not want to renew these missions for a long stretch, but it did want to give the next government a chance to reintroduce the mandate question anew. I think it is a sign of stability, and the new government will be in place when the mandates of these operations are to be renewed in a few months.

Will Germany continue being able to insulate domestic politics from foreign policy decisions, including renewing the mandate of Bundeswehr missions abroad?

Yes. Germany is politically stable but the recent elections have resulted in a more fragmented parliament and we have a harder time to find what is usual in Germany: a stable coalition. Once Germany does find a coalition, however, the  coalition treaty will be negotiated and  one knows exactly which direction the government is headed in for the next four years –  unless major unexpected international events intervene.

A majority of Germans support what the Bundeswehr does to stabilize countries and fight terrorism. I do not expect any changes on that. Foreign policy is mostly an area where there has been a larger consensus. We are living in times where changes occur rapidly—but there have been no big surprises in public support of Bundeswehr missions abroad.

Is Germany still considering proposals to recruit other EU nationals to the Bundeswehr?

A need to recruit more soldiers and Germany’s path to further integration within the EU led to this proposal being published in the last White Paper. However, it is not a top priority.

There are some factors that make doing so difficult. Legal preconditions must be examined because currently only German nationals are permitted entry into the Bundeswehr. Practical concerns such as speaking German might also limit some of the potential recruitment pool.

Is the issue of Germany’s recruitment of 17 turning on 18 year olds a symptom of shortcomings in the Bundeswehr?

This is a separate issue about when you can place young people into the Bundeswehr. In Germany, most young people are placed into jobs and training programs at the age of 16. A debate arose if it’s a good idea to train them to become soldiers at a young age. It remains unresolved.

Lt.Col. Hülshoff: The reason is not so much a lack of recruits in the armed forces as it is a change made in Germany’s school system some years ago which reduced the amount of years required to complete the Grammar School equivalent from 13 to 12. Consequently, the students arrive at the workforce much younger nowadays and the effect of that is also increasing the amount of youngsters entering the Bundeswehr.

Moving on to Brexit and way forward. Will Chancellor Merkel find negotiations with Britain more difficult until the CDU can form a coalition in parliament?

First, I want to emphasize that it is the EU and not Germany that is negotiating with Britain.

Michel Barnier has been selected to represent the EU in these negotiations and some headway has been made. First-round talks have been concluded and negotiations have moved on to the next level with a focus on transition and the future of the relationship between the EU and Britain. In that sense, since Germany itself is not negotiating with Britain, the two things are isolated processes.

Germany was and remains sad about Britain’s divorce from the EU.  Britain has voted for Brexit, the EU now has to negotiate Brexit. It will not be an easy process but we are willing to achieve an outcome that bases our future relationship on a good footing.

I read recently that PM May gave an interview to the Bild Zeitung where she said “we are leaving the EU but we are not leaving Europe”. She was making the point that the UK still wants very good relations with European countries, remains a part of NATO, and that we are still joined in the common defence of our values. This is good news for all of us.

What military consequences of Brexit does Germany see as potentially destabilizing?

Britain has always been one of NATO’s strongest partners. It has a crucial presence in NATO and knowing that the security and defence partnership with NATO will remain unaffected despite Brexit is reassuring.

From the beginning, Germany and Britain had different visions of what we wanted in Europe. Germany always wanted for the EU to become a more political union and desired further integration to that effect. We also have seen it as a union in the fields of defence and foreign policy, which is why we want to deepen European integration in the defence domain. This is something that Germany is going to continue to push for. Britain has been more focused on the trading relationship.

In executing a common security and defence policy, the EU has proved its operational capacity in more than 30 missions abroad on three continents. It is also continuously enhancing its profile through a unique set of both soft and hard power capabilities.

Among the three general forms of power – political, military and economical – the EU has great strength in leveraging its economic weight and has developed much clout in soft power through international negotiations and confidence building measures.

It is now investing more in the third element: military power. In that sense, Germany has been pleased and involved with the recent continuation of strengthening security ties through steps such as the Permanent Structured Corporation (PESCO). PESCO has been a good step forward from the common security and defence policy towards a European security and defence union, which is what we are aiming for.

How will Germany’s younger generation react to its expanding leadership role internationally?

The Körber Stiftung recently published the results of its latest Berlin Pulse opinion poll on Germans view of a growing international leadership role, including the need to  participate in more military missions.

Germans want Germany to have an important role, on the one hand, but do not want to assume the burden of some of the investments this entails. This is reflected in the belief that enough is being done to address issues such as military spending. A general feeling that  ‘more needs to be done’ however lingers.

We will need to talk to our population and make it clear that Germany cannot have it both ways.  American leadership is not a given anymore, there is a necessity to step up to the plate and take our own responsibilities in our own hands. Our government will have to frame the debate and put out the options.