The political backlash against Huawei is building in Germany
by Noah Barkin, Visiting Academic Fellow at MERICS
The German debate over 5G has long been shrouded by opaque technical discussions conducted by obscure government agencies, largely behind closed doors. But in recent weeks long-simmering tensions within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition have boiled over into public view: To allow or not to allow the participation of Chinese suppliers Huawei and ZTE in the country’s next-generation mobile network? It is too early to predict the answer. But the open debate is healthy and overdue.
The trigger was a softening of the security criteria for selecting 5G suppliers by Germany’s Economy Ministry, with the apparent blessing of the Chancellery. Their argument – as outlined by Economy Minister Peter Altmaier at a meeting of conservative lawmakers in the days after the so-called Sicherheitskatalog was unveiled – was that tougher rules would amount to a de facto exclusion of Huawei and ZTE and spark a damaging economic backlash from China. German officials confirm that this message was communicated to Merkel during her visit to Beijing in early September.
The first to push back was Norbert Röttgen, the head of the foreign affairs committee in the Bundestag. He quickly assembled a group of conservative lawmakers who publicly opposed a Chinese role in German 5G. Then the floodgates opened and, in swift succession, the head of the BND foreign intelligence agency Bruno Kahl, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, and Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer all voiced their skepticism about Chinese involvement. Crucially, AKK, as she is known, is leader of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union and the Chancellor’s favored successor.
At a special Bundestag hearing on 5G organized by Röttgen this past week, it was clear that lawmakers in other parties, including Social Democrats, Greens and Free Democrats, are also skeptical. The timetable for feedback on the new security criteria has now been extended and the process could easily drag on into the second quarter of next year. Merkel and incoming European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have said they would like to see a common EU position on 5G. But to achieve even a semblance of EU consensus, Germany will need to sort itself out first.