In case Sigmar Gabriel didn’t realise it, the world is in a desperate state at the moment. War in the Middle East has caused a refugee influx that is creating a far-right resurgence and hollowing out all faith in politicians across Europe. He probably does realize it, because last week we found out that he signed off on enough arms deals in 2015 to double Germany’s arms sales over the year before, bringing this country back to its rightful place as the world’s third biggest arms dealer.
Did he wonder if it was a good idea when he approved the €1.66 billion sale of Leopard tanks to Qatar, even after Qatar began sending troops to take part in the war in Yemen? Or the sales of torpedoes to the Egyptian military dictatorship that is currently more interested in smashing pro-democracy protesters than smashing Islamists? Or the tanks to Kuwait and Oman and the ammunition to Brunei? Or the patrol boats to Saudi Arabia? At some point he must have looked at all these receipts he keeps rubber stamping and wondered what these Middle Eastern countries caught in proxy sectarian wars might use these weapons for?
The really depressing and infuriating thing is that Gabriel is the only member of the government who actually brings up the fact that Germany is consciously trying to arm the world (apart from Wolfgang Schäuble, who actually wants to increase sales. Why? Who knows. Because he likes being a complete bastard?) Gabriel’s election promises were all about reducing these exports, but now, when we find out that he’s done the opposite (being the Economy Minister, it’s his remit), it’s everyone else’s fault.
In an interview with the Süddeutsche Zeitung he lined up his excuses: 1) the figures were inflated by the sale of four military tanker planes to the UK, which is fine because the UK is never going to invade a Middle Eastern country without an international mandate is it? Also, there are major sales every year, and if you take them out it makes no difference to the overall sales increase 2) some of the deals were made by the last Merkel government, and he can’t reverse them (this is wrong, and he knows it. He does have this power, Germany stopped the sale of a weapons system to Russia because of Ukraine a couple of years ago)…
But 3), the most craven excuse of all: the sale of weapons to “third-party states” (those outside NATO and the EU) requires the approval of the Federal Security Council – a secret meeting made up of Merkel and her top ministers, including Gabriel.
So does that mean he keeps getting overruled by Merkel, Schäuble and Steinmeier, a timid, well-meaning dove in a room full of power hungry hawks? Maybe so – his ministry won’t confirm or deny this, and the meetings are secret, so we have no idea who approves of what.
But that doesn’t make it any better – if Gabriel is committed to his campaign promises, then he has to stand up for his policies. Or resign and start doing art.
Otherwise, he needn’t wonder why no one listens to him or his party at the next election, or why people will vote for the AfD – because nothing that he says makes any difference, because sensible people are being flattened and hollowed out.
In fact, he has made some progress when it comes to selling the most dangerous weapons exports of all – he’s reduced Germany’s sales of small arms. So it’s not like he isn’t trying, or that he’s just a liar. But his successes are too ponderous, and he’s too submerged in the deadening Western fixation on some fictional stability in the Middle East- the world is burning out there, and we need someone to stop Germany pouring petrol on it.