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LONDON — Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has grown wearily accustomed to calls for more defense spending from within his U.K. Conservative Party.

But as the PM embarks on a rare overseas trip amidst a seismic year in British politics, he’s likely to hear the same message from one of the U.K.’s most prominent allies.

Sunak visits Germany for the first time as prime minister Tuesday, with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz expected to seek clear assurances on British defense spending after decades of real-terms cuts.

Only two years ago it would have been unthinkable that Germany might be in a position to push Britain on the extent of its military outlay.

But following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022, Berlin is at last set to meet its NATO target to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense. Germany’s weapons commitments to the war are now almost twice the size of Britain’s, and Scholz has made a habit in recent months of urging his European neighbors to similarly ramp up their contributions to the continent’s firepower.

For his part, Sunak has a stated aspiration to boost U.K. defense spending to 2.5 percent of GDP — a £9 billion-a-year increase on current levels — but has set out no real plan for how or when that might happen.

That vagueness appears to be frustrating Britain’s allies, just as as it is many of Sunak’s own MPs — including prominent members of his Cabinet.

A senior official in the German government told POLITICO “there does not seem to be any plan to increase [U.K.] defense spending at all,” noting that “it has stayed the same for some time.”

“We understand about the fiscal constraints the U.K. has, but we all have the same fiscal constraints,” the official added.

“If the U.K. still wants to have a leading part in European security then it needs to increase its spending.

“The chancellor [Scholz] has said this publicly in the past, referring to ‘our partners’. I am sure this will be his message to Sunak.”

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann, chair of the Bundestag’s defense committee, from the liberal party in Scholz’s ruling coalition, also stressed there was space for Britain to “significantly” increase spending.

“The visit of the British prime minister could hardly come at a better time. If Europe wants to be resilient on its own, the advance of Russia must also be stopped by Europe together with our partners. We need the British on board for this and with significantly more commitment,” she said.

Another senior German official stressed there would be no lectures from Scholz, however, insisting that Berlin respects Sunak’s commitment to achieving his 2.5 percent goal.

A spokesperson for Scholz told POLITICO: “Germany appreciates the strong British support to Ukraine. We value all their contributions.”

From Warsaw to Berlin

Ahead of his trip to Berlin Sunak will fly to Warsaw for defense talks with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, before traveling to Germany later in the day.

Under pressure both at home and abroad, the British PM will use the two-day tour to make multiple defense-related announcements.

No. 10 Downing Street said Monday evening that the U.K. would now be sending £3 billion in military support to Ukraine this year — a £500 million increase on previously-announced funds. The extra cash will be spent on much-need ammunition and air defense systems for Ukraine.

“Ukraine’s armed forces continue to fight bravely, but they need our support — and they need it now,” Sunak said. “The United Kingdom will always play its part at the forefront of European security.”

Changing nation

But Germany now has ambitions to become NATO’s leading military power in Europe, after Scholz announced a historic national rearmament in the weeks after Russia’s 2022 invasion. After a slow start, Germany is now Europe’s biggest contributor of aid to Ukraine.

The German chancellor said at the Munich Security Conference in February that “we Europeans need to do much more for our security, now and in the future,” calling on other countries to match Germany’s spending on aid for Ukraine.

It is a sentiment which has been supercharged by the prospect of Donald Trump returning to the White House. Most observers believe a second Trump presidency would lead to greater U.S. isolationism and has prompted European leaders to reconsider collective European security without the help of Washington

Blue on blue

Sunak remains under substantial pressure back home to invest in Britain’s shrinking military in the face of growing geopolitical instability.

Sunak and his Chancellor Jeremy Hunt ruled out any real-terms boost to annual defense spending in their past two fiscal statements, instead prioritizing pre-election tax cuts. 

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