Arms exports and new governments in the Netherlands and Germany

Germany and the Netherlands both have a new coalition government. France will have elections in April. What will this mean for EU arms export policy? For the German Traffic Light Coalition (SPD, Greens and FDP) arms export is an important subject. For the Dutch new government it played a minor role in the endless formation towards a right of centre government of Liberals (VVD and D66), and Christians (CDA, CU). The new German government was confronted by an arms export legacy of its predecessors, who gave the green light for more than half of the record exports of last year, valued at over €9 billion, just a few days before it stepped down and was only in office in a caretaker capacity. A major part of this will go to Egypt: three naval vessels and 16 Diehl air defense systems. Will the new coalition let this deal go through? Al Monitor cites Hassan Nafaa, a professor of political science at Cairo University, who: “expects the deal to be frozen for now, as he does not believe that the new government will accept its passage now but could pass it at a later stage.” Egypt, even under the brutal Sisi government, seems to big a client to let it slip away. New orders are already prepared, and have to overcome political hurdles, the Welt reported.

De-minimis agreement

Another issue is Saudi Arabia. The embargo – not watertight so far (between January 2020 and June 2021 alone, the old federal government issued 57 export licenses for Saudi Arabia worth a total of 32.7 million euros) – is extened. But there are no traffic lights in respect to the de-minimis agreement with France: “There are currently no relevant decisions pending” and the government does not want to comment on a “hypothetical issue” a spokes person of the Ministry of Economics reacted. Russian Press Agency Sputnik concludes there are just no signs there will be brakes on joint NATO exports to the oil-rich Gulf monarchy, including the Eurofighter jet, a Franco-German collaboration. That would mean the Greens in government swallow already part of their position in opposing arms sales to Riyadh. Even for a major arms exporter as Germany, sales of components is the Achilles heel when aiming for tighter arms export control.

The news that an arms export act is developed (limiting sales to non NATO/EU countries) meets stiff resistance from the arms industry. While those in favour already warn: “Hopeful signs were often followed by disappointments.” Those producing military equipment want a European harmonisation of arms export controls, according to a statement by the chair of the German Security and Defence Industries Association. He fears the Scholz government will entrench national arms export restrictions.

Dutch arms components export

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The Dutch Coalition Agreement somewhat cryptical remarks on the defence industry: “The Netherlands will be an actor on the European development of military capacities, and joins the growing consensus on the reciprocal acknowledgement of licenses.”* Although a ‘strategic independent defence-industry’ is impossible – for all countries, but the United States – this refers to the Aachen Treaty between Germany and France to smoothen exports of common developed major weapon systems. Specifically the fighter jet (FCAS) and battle tank (MGCS) programs. The German critical stand on arms exports is a thorn in the flesh for Paris, Aachen is meant to tackle it. Not only to suit Macron but also in the interest of German military industry.**

The Dutch Foreign Affairs Advisory Board (AIV) and the Foreign Affairs Policy Evaluation Board (IOB) both advised to include the Aachen Treaty in Dutch arms export policy. It introduces a so-called de-minimis declaration, meaning that when less than 20% of a weapon system is provided by the industries of a country, in principle it refrains from export control influence.

Devasting effects

For the Dutch export control – and for many more smaller EU countries – this will have devastating effects, because the country exports mainly components for weapon systems. The current used system of global and general licenses to ease component exports for certain weapon systems like the F-3, for common production has almost the same effect. However this has at least the obligation to provide or deny a license. The former Dutch government took the position this was sufficient. The questions remains why sales of weapon parts to allies with loose interpretations of arms export control restrictions should be possible, just because they are part of NATO and the European Union? It will make arms flow through those countries with the weakest control and undercuts EU Common Policy. The interests of the military industry are taken care of in both the Dutch and the German new coalitions. Angela Merkel left a large legacy of billions of major arms sales. As a commentator in the Sächsische Zeitung wrote: “If the German government is serious about a value-oriented foreign policy, then it must also include a more restrictive arms export policy. Because it does not go together to demand the protection of human dignity worldwide and at the same time allow arms deliveries.” The debate to create control on arms trade has been politically present since the mid seventies.Although we have a new superpower competition – it is now the United States and China aiming for world domination – the debate is still urgent. The European Union is still considered – maybe against better judgement – a block based on values. This is hard to combine with sales of military technology, either complete weapon systems or components, to the autocrats of the world.

Test case Putin

Another test case is the arming of countries in conflict – against the EU Common Position on Arms Export – with Russia. Russia is only a superpower because it has nuclear weapons; its military expenditure is at the level of that of Italy and its economic situation does not enable a big war. At the eve of the past year both the Netherlands and Germany took position against the export of non-lethal military equipment to Ukraine. According to BILD information, the weapon systems blocked by means of German vetoes and other delaying tactics are 90 Barrett M82precision rifles from the USA and 20 EDM4S-UA anti-drone rifles from Lithuania. Ukraine had already paid for both weapon systems at the beginning of 2021 through the Nato Support and Procurement Agency(NSPA) and was awaiting delivery. The Merkel government was opposed to this NATO-backed deal and succesfuly asked the Netherlands to join, much to the frustration of Kiev. Is more such cooperation possible? The new German government at least shows the intention to be strict and it was quick to block sales to Kazachstan. Although Putin playing a risky game, more military build-up is not the way to prevent more violence.

Watering down

Germany and the Netherlands both have an arms export policy which takes peace and human rights into consideration – not as often as one should want, but not ignoring it as some other European countries do. But it seems the policies of countries not taking the European Union Common Policy very serious and strict are used by German and Dutch governments to water down on control. The so-called level playing field should not be used for a race to the bottom. Peer pressure in the European Union and stronger civil society pressure for those aiming to keep their governments on account must be infused.

Martin Broek 01/2022

* Original Dutch text: “Nederland speelt een actieve rol in de Europese ontwikkeling van defensiecapaciteiten, en sluit daarvoor aan bij de groeiende consensus over wederzijdse erkenning van vergunningen.”
** Last year I wrote a blog on how the VVD argued the German French treaty towards its own ends, without taking all exceptions in consideration.

Steun Stop Wapenhandel