Tuesday 9 November 2004

Cheap tanks, but no bargain?

Hot on the heels of the announcement of a new "triple alliance" between Spain, Germany and France, yesterday Schröder was in Northern Spain meeting his counterpart, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, for the 19th Spanish-German summit, alongside meetings of other ministerial counterparts.

One of the key issues raised, it appears, was the EU budget for 2007-2013, with Germany sticking to its stance that it wants an upper limit on expenditure of one percent of the community gross domestic product, against the commission's proposal of 1.14 percent.

This is a particularly sensitive issue for Spain as, since its accession in 1986, it has been the chief recipient of structural and development funds - currently worth some six billion euros annually - and is not keen to see any reduction.

But, while there was no meeting of minds on this issue, both countries have decided to "intensify existing defence co-operation", with German defence minister, Peter Struck, agreeing to lease to Spain on extremely generous terms 108 main battle tanks until 2016, whence the Spanish army will own them outright.

Spain also expressed a wish to increase co-operation with Germany via future acquisition programmes" in several fields, including the Eurofighter jet aircraft programme, naval communications and missiles for Tiger helicopters, while both Schröder and Zapatero spoke up for "advances in European security and defence policy" through greater integration at EU level.

From the school of "nothing is ever what it seems", one is hard put to understand why the Spanish would want 108 second-hand tanks (presumably Leopard IIs) from Germany, as there is neither a strategic nor tactical need for what amounts replacement tanks for an armoured division, when the whole concept of heavy armoured formations is considered obsolete.

Clearly, there is a strong element of gesture politics here. Germany has large numbers of tanks surplus to requirements, so the transfer will cost it little, but this will certainly cement Zapatero further into the "triple axis".

This may also have the side-effect of detaching Spain – once an enthusiastic member of Nato – further from the Atlantic alliance. If this is the true agenda, Spain will have sold itself very cheaply, but the price may be higher than it bargained for if the US takes the hint and walks away from the Alliance.