European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is under extreme pressure as EU leaders look set to meet and discuss the bloc’s vaccine strategy. EU sources claim German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European leaders have been lobbying Brussels to back down from its threat of an export ban. Ms von der Leyen has already faced calls for her resignation, after the EU triggered a clause in the Brexit agreement that effectively enforced a hard border on the island of Ireland.
But none of this pressure is new as, prior to her current position, the likes of Andrew Neil claim she was a “failed defence minister” in Germany ‒ perhaps because of high-profile military equipment failures during her tenure.
The German army has faced a shortage of equipment for years, but the situation became so precarious in 2014 that some soldiers had to take matters into their own hands.
Bundeswehr troops tried to hide their lack of arms by replacing heavy machine guns with broomsticks during a NATO exercise.
After painting the wooden sticks black, the German soldiers attached them to the top of armoured vehicles, according to a confidential army report which was leaked to German broadcaster ARD.
A defence ministry spokesperson said the use of broomsticks was not a common practice, and that the decision of the involved soldiers was “hard to comprehend”.
According to the ministry, the armoured vehicles were also not supposed to be armed.
It is not clear how many broomsticks were substituted for machine guns.
However, the revelation came at the worst possible moment for Ms von der Leyen.
The same day, the Ukrainian army suffered a defeat at the hands of pro-Russian rebels in the town of Debaltseve, putting a renewed focus on the question of whether Europe’s NATO allies would be able to manage the crisis militarily – without American intervention.
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To make things worse, the broom-equipped German soldiers belonged to a crucial joint NATO task force and would have been the first to be deployed in case of an attack.
Opposition politicians expressed concerns about Germany’s ability to defend itself and other European allies, given that even some of the most elite forces lacked basic equipment.
The central European country was the world’s third-largest arms exporter in 2013 but, when it came to Germany’s own defence, politicians have been unwilling to invest.
It is not the only time the German army embarrassed itself.
Just a few months before she quit as defence minister in 2019, US officials found that German forces had been using mobile phones during a NATO exercise because of a lack of encrypted radio equipment.
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At the same time, the Bundeswehr was forced to scrap its standard issue assault rifles when it was discovered they didn’t shoot straight in temperatures above 30°C.
Ms von der Leyen served in Mrs Merkel’s cabinet from 2005 to 2019.
Dutch MEP Derk Jan Eppink told the European Parliament in February: “I did not vote for your candidacy for President of the European Commission because I knew of your past as a Minister of Defence in Germany.
“Von der Leyen, you have run away but I will say it anyway, you are to be blamed.
“Therefore I make an appeal to you to step down as President of the European Commission.”