How strong is the German ‘nein’?

How strong is the German ‘nein’?

The German government has extended its policy to not grant export permissions for military products for countries participating in the Yemen war to the end of March. Chancellor Angela Merkel tried to relax the strict rules and said they could be reconsidered. The Social Democrats of the SPD however, also part of the German government, and forced by the electorate to stick to a restrictive arms export policy, stood strong against internal and external pressure.

The Times suggested the German policy might sink the flagship Franco-German Aachen Treaty on defence and foreign policy co-operation. The French Minister of the Economy and Finance Le Maire told Die Welt am Sontag that common arms production with Germany is useless when there are constraints on export possibilities. It will make the arms noncompetitive on the international market. He urged Germany to get off the high moral ground: “If they want to protect their people, they need defense, a strong army and, from an economic point of view, more innovation, more investment, more protection.” During the negotiations for the Aachen Treaty “French threats were so flagrant that some negotiators for the German government seriously feared toward the end of the year that the entire agreement could crumble because of the dispute,” according to Der Spiegel.

Also UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt wrote in a letter to be “very concerned about the impact of the German government’s decision on the British and European defence industry and the consequences for Europe’s ability to fulfill its NATO commitments.” He mentioned the enormous (probably overstated) number of 500 UK arms suppliers who risk breaching contractual obligations, because of the German ban on components for Saudi Arabia. The Saudi Kingdom is the largest defence market outside NATO and a focus for UK arms exports. The UK asked the Germans to exempt the Tornado and Eurofighter Typhoon from the restrictive measures. International weapon producers–such as Airbus and missile producer MBDA have threatened to start producing weapons without any German tech.

Because of French pressure, the Aachen Treaty got a ‘secret’ annex for common defence production, of which a draft is currently fine tuned. Military magazine Defense News mentioned the annex as “a key vehicle” for France and Germany to come together. The text states:

a) on major programs that “the parties will not oppose a transfer or export to a third country proposed by one of the cooperating States, except on an exceptional basis, where their direct interests or national security are compromised ”;

b) on cooperative defence products and the export of components a similar exception is given, also referring to ‘direct interests’ and ‘national security,’ which is multi-interpretable; and

c) on products developed and produced by a manufacturer from one state and incorporated into a system of the other the text states: “so long as the portion of the activity of the manufacturers of one State in the defence systems transferred or exported by the other State remains below a percentage jointly determined beforehand, the Party will issue the respective export authorizations without delay.” A French blog speculates this percentage may be a value of 20 per cent of the weapon system, but leaking this figure is probably part of the negotiation process and a desire in Paris. Whatever the percentage will be, clear is that it hands component control partially over to the other party.

Still there is German defence equipment in use by coalition troops in the Yemen war in air, on land and at sea. A joint effort of German press entities, together with Lighthouse Reports, gives an overview of weapons used by the UAE and Saudi armed forces. It shows for example Germany continued to supply Riyadh with components for fighter jets via the UK, although it was obvious the aircraft were operated over Yemen.

Moreover, in the German government it is still not a given fact the ban will continue. Merkel’s Conservatives, keen to smooth the rift with France and Britain, are piling pressure on the SPD by accusing them of jeopardising German industry and jobs, as press agency Reuters reports. In the week following the prolongation of the ban, it was speculated the freeze on the transfer of patrol boats and even the Meteor missiles may be lifted.

There are also others in the EU/NATO military industry cooperation complex. Of the Dutch military exports, 70 per cent of the licenses concern components to be assembled abroad out of sight of the Dutch parliament. A very timely resolution (22054-306), urging to make the real end use of Dutch military exports public, got only one third of Parliamentary votes and was thus not adopted. Dutch components end up in KSA coalition countries as well. But The Hague has a less strict policy on components when they go to allies like Berlin. Successive Dutch governments choose to leave export control for components to the other EU-members, who are supposed have the same arms export policy as the Netherlands.

But is that so? In the annex to the Aachen Treaty it is stated France and Germany will comply “with common European and international commitments.” But what does this mean? The Arms Trade Treaty, the EU arms export policy, national regulations and restrictions are enough for some EU governments to withhold arms to Riyadh, while others let foreign, economic and military policy prevail. The paperwork is there, it is the interpretation which fails to be in the interest of the high moral ground. It is not the German nein, but the French oui, and the UK yes which are the problem.


MB 07/03/2019

With thanks to Otfried Nassauer of BITS for his information and comments on the proceedings of German arms trade policy of the past weeks.