Interview with Frank Slijper in Greek zine Avgi on the report Guns, Debt and Corruption.
“An insane level of military spending led Greece to massive debts for weapons it does not need”.
An interview with Frank Slijper on …’Guns, Debt and Corruption’.
by Iraklis Oikonomou
Frank Slijper is a Dutch economist specialising in issues of arms trade and militarisation. He is a research fellow of the Amsterdam-based Transnational Institute and heads the NGO Campagne tegen Wapenhandel (Campaign Against Arms Trade). His publications on the EU military-industrial complex, EU space policy and the European Defence Agency constitute a fundamental contribution to the analysis of current militarisation processes. His latest TNI report, ‘Guns, Debt and Corruption: Military spending and the EU crisis’, demonstrates the inherent connection between the debt crisis and high levels of military expenditure in Europe’s South. The following discussion focuses on the Greek case; however, the implications of Slijper’s arguments are valid for other European countries as well, and should be of interest to every concerned citizen.
A Dutchman writing about arms sales and their impact on crisis-ridden countries, such as Greece. How do you interpret the overall silence of researchers and intellectuals on such a topical issue? In Greece itself, no major debate on armaments and their role in the crisis exists.
On the one hand, the focus of most analyses is on the role of financial institutions and economic mechanisms, which is logical. But, since government deficits and related debt problems have led to extensive austerity measures, it is hard to understand why the discussion is hardly about one branch of government spending that has been so dominant and powerful. One explanation is the constant fear mongering by military leaders and the arms industry that cutting military expenditure would be costing many jobs and endanger national security. Both arguments are completely false, as military expenditure has proven to be a very costly, inefficient way to create jobs. Moreover, the western world is so over-armed, that its security cannot be under threat. Rather the opposite: looking at the US for example, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have led to massive military spending, but clearly did not make the world any safer.
What are they key findings of your report? Is the sky-rocketed military budget of Greece a contributing factor to the country’s economic plight?
Prior to the crisis, most EU and NATO countries significantly increased military spending, partly or completely offsetting earlier post-Cold War cuts. While US military spending increased most, in Europe Greece and Cyprus boosted expenditure heavily as well. When military spending eventually dropped as part of wider austerity measures – but mostly only from 2010 – it affected personnel much more than weapons spending. And still, corrected for inflation, many EU countries have their military spending higher today than 10 years ago, even though Europe has never been safer than today and is not facing any meaningful threat. So, the repeatedly heard military mantra that spending levels have fallen below a credible level are completely baseless.
The usual counter-argument addressed to the critics of high military expenditure is that Greece faces a threat to its territorial integrity by Turkey. What is your response to that?
The threat is much less than say 10 or 20 years ago according to most experts. Relations have markedly improved and there is a willingness also from Turkey to work towards confidence building measures. Again, it is important to realize that the military has an interest in maintaining a powerful position by exaggerating perceived threats. They try to make us believe that the economy is under threat with further defence cuts while, actually, military spending has proven to be an extremely costly job generator.
Greece is characterised by a rather minimal arms-production basis, so it is rather difficult to speak of a ‘military-industrial complex’ in its textbook form. What sets of interests are served by the maintenance of high military spending in the case of arms-importing countries such as Greece?
First of all, it is a military interest. But Greece, like most second-tier (mostly smaller) arms producing countries, maintains a so-called offset policy, which aims to get a certain percentage from an arms order returned in domestic orders – preferably in the form of co-production, e.g. producing components for the weapon system to be purchased. This is a very expensive and highly inefficient form of industrial policy, which – while boasting of major employment benefits that often don’t materialise – in practice almost always turns out to be an outrageous subsidy to an industry completely unfit for survival. That is what happened in Greece as well, and that’s why now the government wants to sell this highly unprofitable business. It is a mutual benefit, serving military interests (‘toys for the boys’), as well as the arms industry, often using national security rhetoric as well as drumming on employment benefits. I am not sure in the case of Greece but at least in the Netherlands often the unions blindly side with the companies and the military promoting new arms deals, while promising excellent employment prospects. And history repeats itself again and again here, sadly as with much less money employment elsewhere in the economy could be created, as I demonstrate with examples in my report.
Germany has been at the forefront of the rhetoric in favour of fiscal discipline. Isn’t it relatively contradictory to call for cutbacks in the public budget while at the same time promoting the sale of key weaponry, such as the Leopard 2 tanks and the Type 214 submarines, to Greece?
Yes of course it is: both Greece and Portugal have spent fortunes to buy German submarines and will be spending hundreds of millions annually for many more years to come on these boats (and I wonder what the strategic logic to buy them has been). Greece still is said to have plans to but even more of them, and Germany of course is happy to deliver. But what is the logic if at the same time you unleash austerity measures over the people, cutting wages and pensions; health and education – if you don’t stop buying arms you don’t actually need. Your former foreign minister Theodore Pangalos said that he felt “forced to buy weapons we do not need” and that the deals made him feel “national shame”. Then it is high time now to make a radical shift, away from a culture of unquestioned military spending, wasting billions of taxpayer money every year, which especially now could be used so much better to get Greece out of this economic misery.
Does NATO play a role in the imposition of a certain ‘discipline’ in favour of arms imports and the maintenance of high military budgets in the South?
Secretary General Rasmussen has used every occasion over the past years to stress the need for high military spending, to avoid any further cuts. Every time the false comparison of Europe with the US is being used to portray that we are getting in danger, because Washington is spending so much more. Such people never mention that the Pentagon’s spending has no equal, certainly not in absolute terms, but also as a percentage of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Only a few Middle Eastern countries such as Saudi Arabia and Israel (fed by substantial US military aid) reach that level. For long Greece was the only EU member to come anywhere close to that insane level. Look what it has done to Greece: massive debts for weapons it does not need. Even within the military there is recognition that the big arms deals with France, Germany and the US have only brought financial misery. It would be much better if people would compare with Ireland, which has Europe’s smallest part of GDP devoted to its armed forces.
In your work, you have referred to the existence of an EU-wide military-industrial complex. Has the crisis affected its function and, if yes, in what way?
Partly, yes because declining national budgets in some way have limited their prospects for new orders and programmes. On the other hand – with increased government support, just because of the crisis – they’re shifting their focus more towards other markets abroad, whether it is BRICS countries, or Arab oil states, which so far have been unaffected by downsizing of military budgets. Despite condemnation with the Arab Spring of EU weapons sold to dictators in the Middle East and North Africa, two years later it all seems business as usual again. And you see strong pressures in France, in the UK, in most countries in fact, to undo much of the (proposed) cuts. Prime Minister David Cameron recently said that the Korea crisis showed again why Britain needs to spend billions of pounds to replace its nuclear missile submarines. Both industry and the military have a common interest to exaggerate threats, at the cost of citizens who pay the bill.
You are involved in the Dutch anti-militarist organization Campagne tegen Wapenhandel (Campaign against Arms Trade). How was it set up and what are its key missions and priorities?
The Campagne tegen Wapenhandel is a small politically independent grassroots organisation founded in 1998 to fight one of the root causes of war: arms production and arms trade. We base our campaigns on extensive research and work with peace and solidarity organisations. We try and influence the parliament as much as possible, through the media and in direct contacts. Within Europe we work together with partners in the European Network Against Arms Trade.
To conclude, is there an alternative to the permanent ‘arms economy’, as pictured in the Greek case? What is your own vision of a social and economic model that may replace the constant drive to arm?
A decent, intensive discussion across society about the way we think about military spending, and about the alternatives: about the opportunity costs of military spending and about examples of alternative approaches to security: job security, social security, human security. I am convinced most people would rather work towards a constructive dialogue with Turkey rather than continuing an endless arms race which only benefits the arms industry. What about a focus towards innovative technologies in areas like green energy? And of course tourism: show the outside world that you’ve done away with corrupt officials, bankers and industrialists and that you given power back to the people. Look at how Iceland has re-emerged from a major crisis.