European arms trade, controlled but not restricted

After the United States the European Union is the biggest global arms exporter. Therefore a good European arms export policy will contribute to global stability and peace, whereas a sloppy policy comes with great risks. The role of Germany is crucial. Germany is the the biggest EU arms exporter and the thirst global arms exporter, with an 11% share of all military exports in the period 2006-2010, after the US with 30% and Russia with 23%.

EU arms control

Since 1998 arms export falls under a European Union common policy. For any export of military equipment and technology from a EU member state an export licence is required, to be applied for at the appropriate national authority. All license applications have to be assessed for a set of criteria regarding human rights, armed conflict and the economic situation in the buying country. National arms trade policy has to be in line with the EU arms trade policy, although member states are allowed to make additional policy on top of EU legislation.

An administrative body, COARM (Council Working Group on Conventional Arms Exports) meets regularly in Brussels to discuss and compare the arms export policy of the 27 EU member states. The aim is to work towards a harmonisation of the arms trade policies of all EU countries, to create a level playing field.

The EU arms export policy includes included a transparency procedure through the publication of annual reports on arms exports. It also requires member states to publish a national report on its defence exports. Fourteen years after the establishment of the common EU arms export policy, many countries still do not fully report on their military exports.

Strengthening of defence industry

That the European Union wants to control and regulate the arms trade does not mean that it wants to reduce it. The military forces of European countries and the powerful military industries, which the European Institute of Foreign Relations defines as the defence establishment, have a big influence over the EU agenda. It is due to this influence for example that the Common EU Security and Defence Policy includes a clause saying that EU member states must strive for 'the strengthening of a European defence technological and industrial base'.

The military industry of the big EU arms exporters, Germany, France, Italy, the UK and the Netherlands, is high tech and top-of-the market. It offers expensive weapon systems for costumers which either can afford such luxuries (which are western countries and countries with raw materials for export, notably oil) or which can find funders for their purchases. Big arms trade debts contribute to economic hardship. One can see it in Greece, until recently the biggest EU arms importer, notably buying from Germany and France, and Egypt, presently repaying amongst others huge UK debts for the construction of a tank factory and supply of missiles.

New sources of funding

To compensate for national defence budget cuts, the military industry tries to find other sources of funding. One of these is homeland security, a field where a lot of the substantial EU research budget is going into. The European Union cannot support the defence industry due to political sensitiveness but it can support 'homeland security research' which sounds much more civilian. A 1,4 billion Euro European Security Research Programme (ESRP) is developed for the period 2007-2013 by an informal think tank of the European Commission, in collaboration with big European military companies such as EADS, Thales and Finnmechanica, which are also the big profiteers of the program.

Another field where budgets might continue to grow is NATO's missile defence shield. The arms industry is looking forward to the NATO summit in Chicago in May were decisions will be made on contributions to extend the program. “In technological terms, Europe has a certain number of competences it can contribute” said chief executive of EADS’s Astrium space division François Auque. “The only real subject is the financial thing.” So far, the defence industry and NATO are amazingly successful in convincing the European public opinion that it needs a missile shield against Iran, although Iranian rockets are not so advanced that they can reach into the European heartland. As a protection to Russia the missile shield seems to archive the opposite of what it is supposed to do. Instead of bringing safety it drove the Russians to increase their military efforts. The missile shield is a new cold-war-style arms race with a billion dollar budget from with the arms industry will profit immensely.

The defence industry also hopes to profit from budgets for sustainable technologies. “I think climate change is a real opportunity for the aerospace and defence industry" said Lord Drayson, former UK Minister of State for strategic defence acquisition reform. In 2011 the arms industry organised a Energy Environmental Defence and Security conference, sponsored by giants such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Finmeccanica and EADS. In its announcement it jubilates: "The defence market worldwide is worth a trillion dollars annually. The energy and environmental market is worth at least eight times this amount."

Human rights under fire

When the home market is shrinking, more export is the solution. The European arms industry is trying to expand its market abroad but export regulations might stand in its way. European arms export is controlled by a set of eight criteria (see cadre) which forces member states to consider more than just economic and military interests. The eight criteria set a clear standard for an ethical arms trade policy. Unfortunately, as a close reader will notice, the formulation of the criteria is not hard. The licensing authority needs to take into account human rights, armed conflict and the economic situation of the buying country, but the criteria do not demand that in case of doubt an export license has to be denied. It is up to the exporting country to decide if it applies the criteria stick or flexible. Only in case of an arms embargo or an actual war, export is indisputable against EU rules. Because of this elasticity, many European arms still end up with dictators and human rights violators, in conflict regions or in countries too poor for expensive EU weapons. All European countries grant arms export licenses for deals which, were the EU arms export criteria applied strictly, could not have taken place.

This became painfully visible during the 2011 Arab spring, when European arms were used against peaceful civilians demonstrating for democracy. For many years European governments had ignored warnings of peace and human rights organisations, and had given Arab dictators the benefit of the doubt considering arms export license applications. The French government for example granted an export license for tear gas to Tunisia in December 2010. Thanks to a attentive French customs official the transfer was stopped at a French airport but the French government cancelled the license only after the Ben Ali government had fallen. The United Kingdom exported shotguns, tear gas canisters and stun grenades to Bahrain which were used by the riot police when clearing the Pearl Roundabout. The Netherlands exported armoured vehicles to Egypt and Bahrain, which were used against civil protesters. Germany not only sold a production line for guns to Saudi Arabia but also exported anti-tank missiles to Algeria, Egypt and Libya, amongst others. The armoured cars which literally drove over protesting Copts in Egypt were most probably of German origin. Never before it became so clear that the EU arms export policy had failed. This now gives an impulse for the improvement of arms trade policy.

Stop the arms trade

The interests in arms trade are gigantic, economically as well as politically. Together the nine biggest EU arms industries spend nearly 2.5 million Euro on lobbying in Brussels. The umbrella organisation Aerospace and Defence Industries Association (ASD) has an annual turnover of 4,7 million Euro, much of which is spend on lobby. The lobby budgets of the arms industry on national level is unknown. Nor is known how much is spend on corruption, but judging from the long list of scandals, most often involving high politicians, it must be a lot. Still peace activists and human rights activists continue to try and get arms trade under control.

In 2012 the EU common position on arms export has to be reviewed. A coalition of NGO's investigated the EU exports to Middle East and North African countries and formulated recommendations for the improvement of the EU policy. Also in 2012, the United Nations is planning to adopt a Arms Trade Treaty in an attempt to control the global arms trade. These international agreements do not by themselves stop arms trade but they do provide a framework for next steps. Implementation has to take place at the national level. For this, national campaigns against arms trade are indispensable. And because the arms trade is controlled nationally but producing globally, these national campaigns have to work together. Therefore a European Network Against Arms Trade (ENAAT) exists. ENAAT is not a formal organisation but a loose network of independent groups and researchers sharing information on a regular basis and working together occasionally. In 2012 ENAAT will be meeting in Berlin.

Published in FriedensForum 2/3 2012, magazine of the Netzwerk Friedenskooperatieve, the network of the German peace movement