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FILE PHOTO: Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference in Berlin, Germany, May 15, 2017. REUTERS/Reinhard Krause/File Photo(reuters_tickers)
By Andrea Shalal and Andreas Rinke
BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany must increase its military spending and take a more active role in conflicts to avoid being seen as one of the world's biggest freeloaders, an influential diplomat said on Wednesday.
Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference and Germany's former envoy to Washington, urged the country's would-be government coalition partners to reverse their restrictive stance on arms exports and formally back commitments to NATO.
Ischinger said he considered it "undignified" for Germany's sole contribution to the global fight against Islamic State to be reconnaissance flights.
"The biggest European Union state is all for victory over Islamic State in Syria and Iraq; we take photos, but we leave the dirty business of shooting to others," he told Reuters in an interview on Tuesday.
"We should not develop the reputation of being one of the world's best freeloaders," he added.
Germany has come under increasing pressure from U.S. President Donald Trump to increase its military spending, but the issue remains divisive in a country scarred by its Nazi past, with many Germans favouring a more pacifist stance.
A senior U.S. military official on Monday warned that failure by the next German government to fulfill a pledge to boost military spending to two percent of its economic output will weaken the NATO alliance.
Germany spent about 1.13 percent of its gross domestic output on the military in 2017, according to industry estimates, and the percentage may drop further if economic growth continues to outpace modest increases in military spending.
Ischinger said the German government had increased its engagement in global affairs in line with a 2014 pledge at the annual MSC conference, including through its deployment of German troops to Lithuania to protect NATO forces, and its participation in a U.N. peacekeeping mission in Mali.
But he said Germany still remained reluctant to take on combat roles, and had failed to offer clear ideas for how to shape the future of Europe.
He also criticised the lack of substantial foreign policy initiatives in a blueprint agreed by Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservatives and the centre-left Social Democrats in their bid to renew the coalition that has ruled Germany since 2013."They're losing themselves in the fine print," he said, urging Germany to play a more decisive role in shaping the future of Europe, including by pushing for more areas where the EU decides by majority instead of by unanimous consent.
"Without majority decisions, Europe will always allow itself to be divided," Ischinger said, citing divisions on issues such as the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline between Russia and Germany.
The coalition blueprint does not mention the NATO 2-percent target given divisions between the political blocs, with Social Democrats arguing that Germany should spend more on development aid instead.
Ischinger said failure to explicitly state a commitment to the NATO target would "ruin our credibility in this area". He rejected comments in which Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a Social Democrat, argued that other European countries would fear a Germany that spent that much of its budget on the military.
"How can it be that our rich country with over 80 million citizen doesn't have a single helicopter we can use in Afghanistan, not a single useable submarine," Ischinger said, referring to recent news reports confirmed by military officials. "How can it be that we send our soldiers to Afghanistan without the best armoured vests?"
Ischinger also criticised a move by the potential coalition to limit German arms exports to any parties involved in the Yemen conflict, saying such a move would complicate moves toward a joint European defence strategy.
"What we really need are unified European arms export guidelines that apply to everyone," he said.
(Editing by Andrew Heavens)