You know that something new is afoot in Europe when Germany starts talking tough on defence.

German President Joachim Gauck’s much-publicised call for his country to put aside World War II anxieties and play a bigger military role abroad has been hailed as a step in the right direction for a country which has spent its post-war years in an anti-military funk.

Coming only a few weeks after EU leaders held their first discussion in five years on EU defence and security, Gauck’s comments have raised hopes of a new era of more pro-active and potent European defence at a time when increased violence and bloodshed in the Central African Republic and events in Mali are pushing the EU to step up its military presence in Africa in support of French and African Union troops.

The German president’s appeal for Berlin’s re-engagement with Europe – as well as with NATO and the United States – on defence and security issues is music to the ears of its partners who, in recent years, have despaired of Germany’s reluctance to take a prominent, less risk-averse role in the EU’s so-far fairly modest military adventures.

Change appears to be in the air – at least if some of Germany’s top political players are to be believed. Gauck suggested it was time that Germany stopped looking in the rear-view mirror of history. While there are genuine pacifists in Germany, there are also people who use Germany’s guilt for its past as a shield for laziness,” Gauck said at the recent Munich Security Conference, a yearly meeting of European and US security chiefs. “Restraint can be taken too far,” he warned.

The German leader has an important ally in the country’s new defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who told the Munich meeting: “We are ready to support destruction of chemical agents from Syria. We are willing to reinforce our contribution to efforts in Mali and, if needed, to support the European mission in the Central African Republic.” Germany’s decision to become more engaged in Mali and in the Central African Republic was about European interests. “Should a large part of Africa become destabilised, it could have grave consequences for us,” von der Leyen said in an interview with Der Spiegel.

The German defence minister has said she also favours more progress on forging a European defence identity. Joint armed forces would be “a logical consequence of increasingly close military cooperation in Europe” she told Der Spiegel recently. But in a reference to the long-standing German view that armies are deployed by parliament, not the executive, she cautioned: “European parliaments cannot be rendered powerless.” German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s comments that Germany “is too big to only comment on world politics from the sidelines” are also in striking contrast to former German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle who opposed US intervention in Libya (which was backed by France and Britain).

The rhetoric is impressive but is Germany really undergoing a serious change of heart on defence? Certainly, NATO, the US and the EU are hoping that in addition to the leading role it has assumed in the euro zone crisis, Berlin will shed past caution by adopting a more robust and less combat-shy stance on defence. Moving from words to action will not be easy, however. Gauck and von der Leyen may be hailed by Germany’s partners but German public opinion remains wary of embarking on foreign military missions. A recent poll by the German national TV station, ARD, said 61 percent of Germans do not want to send more soldiers abroad. While other surveys show public support for more engagement in humanitarian missions in Africa, a majority of Germans continue to oppose a bigger overseas military role.

Significantly also, while von der Leyen and Gauck may have talked of increasing the number of soldiers abroad, in time-honoured German tradition, neither referred to the more significant question of whether they would be allowed to take a combat role.

The 5,000 Germany personnel who currently take part in nine international missions, including more than 3,000 in Afghanistan, mostly work on training local security forces. In the French-led intervention in Mali, about 100 German military personnel provide support such as troop transport flights and training. And Germany has said it may again provide logistical support – but not firepower – in the upcoming European mission to the Central African Republic.

Gauck’s message of commitment and global engagement may therefore be the first sign of new thinking in Berlin. While the conversation on a new German defence posture has started, however, no one should expect an overnight change.

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