Why the SPD shows two completely different faces in security policy

Berlin Anyone who has listened to the two federal chairmen of the SPD, Saskia Esken and Lars Klingbeil, could believe that the two are members of different parties. Klingbeil campaigned for higher defense spending on Saturday, supporting Defense Minister Boris Pistorius (SPD). In the budget negotiations, he calls for an increase in the defense budget from 50 to 60 billion euros. “My support has that,” said Klingbeil.

Just one day later, Esken made it clear that she was critical of higher spending for the Bundeswehr. “Ten billion euros is a lot of money,” said Esken in a “FAZ” interview. “It is now important that Department of Defense procurement is empowered to target this money. Then we’ll talk more.” Esken’s support is therefore not Pistorius.

Now Klingbeil and Esken are not only members of the same party, but also joint co-chairs of the SPD – and Olaf Scholz is the chancellor. But Esken in particular repeatedly strays from the security policy course that Klingbeil is trying to set. How does it all go together?

Two answers are conceivable. Either the polyphony of the SPD leadership harms the party because Esken’s statements sow doubts about how seriously the SPD is about the turning point. Or the distribution of tasks between the two party leaders in cooperation with parliamentary group leader Rolf Mützenich is simply necessary to rally the SPD behind the change of era policy of their social-democratic chancellor.

Observers believe in the second variant: the party’s struggle with itself makes it easier for many to take steps that they would never have taken until recently. Like agreeing to the use of armed drones.

Klingbeil sees Germany as a “leading power”

It has been obvious for a long time that Esken and Klingbeil are rowing in different directions in foreign and defense policy. Klingbeil has been the sober Realpolitiker since the outbreak of war. He has openly acknowledged the SPD’s mistakes in Russia policy and is trying to correct them.

Instead of “with Russia”, the SPD now wants to organize a European peace order “before Russia”, according to a new paper by the party leadership. Klingbeil even sees Germany internationally as a “leading power”.

On the left wing, to which Esken and parliamentary group leader Mützenich belong, mistakes in Russia policy are also acknowledged. With new tones such as “leadership power” one can do little there. “In view of our history, we should perhaps be a bit careful with terms such as leadership power,” says a leading SPD member from the left wing of the party.

One of Klingbeil’s dilemmas so far: While he is realigning the SPD’s foreign policy and SPD foreign politicians such as Nils Schmid and Michael Roth have a very sober view of Russia, statements by representatives of the left-wing SPD are the ones that are publicly noticed.

>> Read here: Weapons for the Ukraine – How Germany from being driven to become a driver

For example, parliamentary group leader Mützenich and Ralf Stegner called for more emphasis on diplomacy in the Ukraine war just as Klingbeil’s paper on the foreign policy turnaround was completed. Partially, therefore, it seems as if “the SPD is still stuck in the time before the turning point,” admits a party member. “Although it’s not like that at all.”

The left wing of the party also thinks little of increasing the defense budget permanently to two percent of annual economic output. Chancellor Scholz had set this goal in his speech about the turn of the century a year ago and recently repeated it in a speech in the Bundestag. Actually, Germany had already made this promise to its allies during the grand coalition. But it was never complied with.

Also because the left wing of the SPD, under the leadership of Mützenich, drummed loudly against the fulfillment of this promise. This has only changed to a limited extent since the outbreak of the Ukraine war. Esken also made that clear in the interview with the “FAZ”. She has always questioned whether this linking of defense spending to economic strength “is the right way”. It is important to clarify what counts as part of the two percent. So you also need higher investments in civil defense and disaster control. Esken also sees development cooperation as part of security policy.

Federal Chancellor Olaf Scholz in conversation with Saskia Esken and Rolf Mützenich (from left)

With their restraint, for example on the subject of defense spending, the SPD chair and the parliamentary group leader are fulfilling an important function – namely, taking the whole party with them.

(Photo: IMAGO/photothek)

Party members should not “feel lost and lonely”

In the budget negotiations, too, things have already crunched internally because of the SPD issue. According to Handelsblatt information, leading SPD representatives are said to have made it clear that they did not see the need to increase defense spending to two percent, and in doing so were basically thwarting the demands of their own, newly appointed defense minister.

>> Also read here: Why Olaf Scholz hesitated on the tank question

Externally, the SPD makes a little closed impression. However, the pragmatists in the SPD also see that Esken and Mützenich, with their restraint on the issue of defense spending, are fulfilling an important function: namely, taking the whole party with them.

“If everyone suddenly took the Scholz and Klingbeil course, that would also be a problem,” says an SPD politician from the business-friendly wing. Then a number of party friends would “feel lost and lonely”. This also applies to the debate about the use of armed drones.

In particular, the leader of the parliamentary group, Mützenich, who has his political roots in the peace movement, has an important role to play here. It is his job to express the concerns that drive many party and faction members. According to the parliamentary group, the fact that he is doing this is a key reason why the parliamentary group has supported all steps since the outbreak of the Ukraine war.

More: SPD is striving for Germany to play a leading role in foreign policy

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