Louder than words; European arms export policy debated

Next week, European non-governmental organisations meet in Brussels with the Council Working Party on Conventional Arms Exports (COARM ) of the European Union. On the agenda is the review of the Users Guide on the EU Common Position on the control of export of military technology and equipment (Common Position on arms export). It will be evaluated in the light of the Arab Spring and the situation in Crimea. Although the Common Position is pretty clear about the licensing conditions for arms exports, as soon as international relations and huge sums of money are at stake, it turns out to be very difficult to find European common ground.

According to the Common Position on arms export, exporting countries must take into consideration the country of final destination’s respect for human rights and international humanitarian law, and also the preservation of regional peace, security and stability. It is obvious that these issues are at stake in many Arab countries as well as in the Russian-Ukraine conflict. The EU arms exporting countries however find much room for interpretation of the criteria, and do not always follow the same policies.

For example, Czech Rights group NESEHNUTÍ sounds the alarm bell that the Czech Republic plans to export 50 000 handguns and 10 million pieces of ammunition to the Egyptian Police. This is completely against the conclusion the EU Council adopted last August 21, after a bloody massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters in Cairo. Amongst others, the EU Member States agreed to suspend export licenses to Egypt of any equipment which might be used for internal repression. According to the Czech government, these handguns are not for repression but for self-defence of the Egyptian police. Although the Czech Republic seems to be willing to permit the deal, there is some hope that Germany or Poland, from which the guns and ammunition must be shipped, will deny transit.

Of the same calibre but with a much bigger economic and foreign policy impact is the export of European weapons to Russia now that Putin is annexing the Crimea.

France struggles with the delivery of two Mistral advanced helicopter carriers sold to Russia for €1.2 billion. A cancellation of the contract would be “an extreme measure” Defence Minister Le Drian said Wednesday. However, Le Drian seems not to consider the deal as a military export. “We will deliver civilian hulls,” says the minister. “It’s a reality. The client can then arm the two ships. We will deliver, under the signed contract, a package which is not armed.” This might come suitable as there is no arms export license required for a civilian export, hence it would not be a break with the Common Position. A defence executive however expressed surprise at the description of the Mistral as a civilian hull. The ships will be fitted with a combat system, based on a Senit command-and-control system and radar. DCNS is prime contractor for the ships, France’s Thales supplies the radar. Russia has options for two more Mistral ships.

Dutch Damen Shipyard lost the Russian order from France in 2009, leading France to defend the deal in a dispute with the US with the much-abused argument ‘If we do not sell, somebody else will’. (see for cable overview in this case http://broekstukken.blogspot.nl/2011/01/als-frankrijk-niet-verkoopt-doen-de.html)

Regarding military sanctions towards Russia, the UK has suspended bilateral military cooperation and arms export licences, and it has cancelled a planned naval exercise among France, Russia, the UK and the US. However, France is only willing to suspend the Mistral deal if the Brittains will also freeze assets of Russian oligarchs invested in London. Paris is not going to pay the economic prize for sanctions on its own.
In the mean time Germany has suspended, at least temporary, a major contract for the Rheinmetall defence technology group. Although the defence company intended to honour its contractual obligations, German opposition parties convinced the Government that this was not the moment to provide the Russians with a combat training facility worth around 120 million Euros, able to train 30,000 troops per year.

Wendela de Vries 20/03/2014