BERLIN — With just two months left before Germany’s federal election, the opposition Social Democratic Party is struggling to reverse its poor standing in the opinion polls.
Trailing at least 15 percentage points behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, the party’s leadership is trying to tap into any issue it believes could win votes. One such issue is the public’s opposition to armed drones.
Last month, the executive board of the Social Democrats decided “to oppose the acquisition and use of armed drones and to outlaw weapons systems that are fully automatic.” It hoped this would be a highly popular issue.
“You can see why,” said Elizabeth Quintana, head of military technology and information studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. “There is a knee-jerk reaction to armed drones in Germany. Germans are against the use of force.”
There is another reason why the Social Democrats are latching onto the drone issue. The party wants to embarrass the government, particularly Thomas de Maizière, the defense minister and one of Ms. Merkel’s most loyal lieutenants.
Mr. de Maizière had recently become embroiled in a scandal over the development of the Euro Hawk armed drone system, a version of the American Global Hawk drone.
After Germany’s armed forces had spent more than €600 million — or $790 million — on the project, it turned out that the Euro Hawk lacked certain technical capabilities that the Americans were not prepared to share. Furthermore, the drones had not been certified to fly in European civilian or military air space. As this story broke, it became clear that the German military had pursued its drone program with minimum transparency on costs and viability.
Mr. de Maizière has so far withstood the calls for his resignation. The scandal, however, has galvanized public opposition against the use of drones. Yet the controversy disguises several issues that will have to be dealt with, regardless of which party wins in September.
“One is the technological aspect,” said Markus Kaim, head of research and a security analyst at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin. “Germany is being left behind. Apart from the United States and Israel, many countries have or are developing armed drones, such as Britain, China and India.”
In practice, this means that the technological gap between most NATO countries that do not have drones, and the United States will widen even further, adding more strains to the alliance, experts say. Another issue is the lack of discussion in Germany over the differences between combat and surveillance drones, and what each should be used for.
“On the armed-drone issue, no German government has any intentions of using drones the way the U.S. does,” Mr. Kaim added, referring to how the Obama administration had used combat drones to target and kill terrorism suspects in Pakistan and Yemen.
But while defense experts in the German Parliament accept that armed drones could be used to protect German troops, for example in Afghanistan, the public is desperately afraid that the use of drones would reduce a deep-seated reluctance to use force.
Oliver Meier, researcher at the Institute of Peace Research and Security Policy at Hamburg University, argues that soldiers operating the drones from afar might have fewer inhibitions against using them than if they were exposed to danger.
Implicitly, he questions if drones might make it easier for Germans to accept using force. “This is a new way of waging war which could have far-reaching consequences,” Mr. Meier said recently.
But as drones become part of modern warfare, the Social Democrats could be calling for a European legal framework to regulate their use. It has failed to do that — as have Ms. Merkel’s center-right government and other European governments.
European countries “have remained essentially disengaged as the era of drone warfare has dawned,” said Anthony Dworkin, author of a new report on drones for the European Council for Foreign Relations research group. One reason is that the Europeans are divided over the use of drones. Another is that if the European Union did have a debate about the use of armed drones, it would mean criticizing the Obama administration.
“The Europeans are torn between a reluctance to accuse Obama of breaking international law and an unwillingness to endorse his policies, divided in part among themselves and in some cases bound by close intelligence relationships to the U.S.” Mr. Dworkin said.
Security analysts say such reluctance to forge a common stance is shortsighted. If the European Union bases its foreign policy on human rights and the rule of law, then the member states should agree that a legal framework is needed rather than a free-for-all system.
Moreover, this could be the time to engage the United States. President Barack Obama recently announced tighter regulations for the use of drones in a major speech on the war on terrorism.
The Europeans — and Germans in particular — could have used that speech to begin a trans-Atlantic debate over the use of armed drones, experts said. But they didn’t. Instead, analysts believe Germany is playing for time before broaching the issue. “The drone issue is an election issue,” Mr. Kaim said.
And once the election is over? If Ms. Merkel’s coalition is re-elected, Mr. de Maizière has already announced a new armed drones program. But none of the problems that appeared over the Euro Hawk have been solved — least of all the public’s hostility to this new class of weapons.
Judy Dempsey is editor in chief of Strategic Europe at Carnegie Europe. (www.carnegieeurope.eu