Sunak, Scholz Find Common Cause to Support Each Other on Defense

(Bloomberg) -- UK-German ties appeared under strain as recently as last month, with British officials lobbying Berlin to send Ukraine more long-range missiles. On Wednesday, there was little sign of such tension as Chancellor Olaf Scholz hosted Rishi Sunak on his first trip to Germany as prime minister.

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During a visit in which Sunak was feted with military honors and greeted his German host as mein Freund, the two leaders went out of their way to show a united front in Europe’s effort to reverse Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and bolster its own security. They talked enthusiastically about shared football stars and pledged to collaborate on “remote-controlled howitzer 155mm wheeled artillery systems.”

“At this dangerous moment, the bond between our two nations is stronger than ever,” Sunak told reporters at a joint news conference in Berlin. Scholz said the two countries “have a long shared history” and “a similar view of the world.” He also talked of “fond memories” of working with Sunak when the two men were finance ministers of their respective nations.

The meeting between Europe’s two top providers of military aid to Ukraine was timely for both men, who are under pressure at home and abroad to show the continent is doing its part to defend NATO. Donald Trump’s renewed criticism of European defense spending during his campaign for a return to the White House has rekindled concerns about US commitment to support.

Both leaders have struggled to maintain strength on defense while weathering tepid support in the polls. In Britain, Sunak has been accused of of not spending enough to ensure the UK military is ready for any future conflict with China and Russia. Scholz, meanwhile, has faced calls to provide Ukraine with more powerful weapons systems, including from the UK, which has privately urged Germany to send the country its long-range Taurus missiles.

In February, Sunak’s former defense secretary, Ben Wallace, dismissed Scholz as “the wrong man, in the wrong job, at the wrong time.”

While Scholz doubled down on Wednesday on his insistence that he wouldn’t send the Taurus cruise missiles to Ukraine, the two men highlighted things they did agree on. Those included plans for joint procurement of weapons systems such the Boxer armored fighting vehicle and collaboration on multinational air-defense projects, such as the German-led European Sky Shield Initiative and the Diamond Initiative.

“Europe has massively expanded its efforts for defense, we’re witnessing the emergence of a very strong European army for defense, and this is needed so that we can jointly defend our NATO territory,” Scholz said after talks with Sunak.

Sunak, for his own part, declined to criticize the Taurus decision, instead suggesting that different countries have “different capabilities” in terms of what they can offer to counter Russia. The two leaders “talked about the importance of getting air defense to Ukraine,” Sunak said, in reference to what has been a key German ask of its allies in recent weeks.

The UK earlier this week announced it would send more Storm Shadow long-range missiles to Ukraine as part of its single biggest military aid package to the country since the invasion. Germany, meanwhile, last week announced it would send a third Patriot anti-missile system to Ukraine, together with more Iris-T and other air defense gear.

Sunak fell back on football — an arena of competition between England and Germany since they were on opposite sides of two world wars — to find common ground. “The thing that really unites us is our people: The love that Liverpool has for Jurgen Klopp or the love that Munich has for Harry Kane,” the premier said, referring to the German manager of the English club, and the England captain who plays his football in the German Bundesliga.

The UK and Germany have a shared interest in making sure American support continues after President Joe Biden’s bruising months-long battle to secure passage this week of more than $60 billion of security aid for Ukraine.

The government in Berlin is pushing the US to provide at least one more Patriot anti-missile system to Ukraine to help close the air-defense gap, Bloomberg reported on Tuesday. Scholz’s pressure campaign aimed at its transatlantic ally is part of a coordinated effort to get NATO and European Union partners to step up assistance on air defense.

Germany’s prodding is something of a role reversal for Scholz, whose government was often pilloried at the beginning of Russia’s full-scale invasion for dragging its feet on weapons deliveries. Still, Scholz has argued that sending Taurus missiles to Kyiv could make Germany a direct party to the war.

The British prime minister struck a conciliatory tone when asked about Trump’s commitment to NATO. “US presidents have always called for more European defense spending,” Sunak said, characterizing Trump’s demands as “not new.” Europe cannot expect America to “pay any price” if it wasn’t willing to do the same, he added.

--With assistance from Alex Morales.

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