Militarisation of Europe at the cost of arms export control

Many countries in Europe are relaxing their arms export rules, arguing this is necessary to let the arms industry thrive. Different countries – ranging from Norway to Italy – have implemented changes in their arms export policy that all lower arms export standards and make exports to countries at war or with poor human rights records possible.

A first, small, but significant change, is that the Ukraine war has led countries that have traditionally been very restrained in exporting arms shift their attitude. Norway, for example, for the first time ever has made an exception on its rule that no arms can be exported to a country involved in war. The Norwegian defence industry can now directly sell arms to Ukraine.
Meanwhile, the Swiss government has tried multiple times to relax its rules around arms re-exports to Ukraine. Right now, countries who buy arms from Swiss are not allowed to re-export them to countries at war to guarantee Swiss’ neutrality. The Swiss government wants to install certain exceptions to make it possible to re-export to Ukraine. So far these plans are voted down by the parliament.

Saudi Arabia off the hook

Many other countries have taken steps to end arms export bans that they previously put in place to prevent conflicts and human rights violations. Germany, for example, banned arms exports to Saudi Arabia in 2018 – even though this ban was partial and some exports were still allowed to go ahead – in response to KSA involvement in the Yemen war and the murder of journalist Khashoggi. However, in October 2022, German Chancellor Scholz decided to resume arms exports to the country, in a bid to secure energy imports from the Gulf states after the sanctions against Russia. Fossil fuels apparently are more important than human rights.

While the government first announced to only allow exports of arms that could not be used in the Yemen war and still blocked the sale of Euro fighter jets jointly produced with the UK, it came back from this decision in October 2023 after the outbreak of the war in Gaza, arguing that Saudi-Arabia makes a significant contribution to Israel’s security.

The same thing happened in Denmark, although for slightly different reasons. The country banned arms exports to Saudi-Arabia and the UAE in 2018 and 2019, but has come back from this decision in 2023 to be more in line with other European countries. The government argues that it wants to ensure “that the Danish defence industry has the opportunities to participate in international competition”.

Lowest common denominator

Along the same lines, the Dutch government abandoned its presumption of denial policy towards Saudi-Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey in the summer of 2023. The presumption of denial determined that no arms could be exported to these countries, unless it was proven that they would not be used in human rights abuses – a reversion of normal practice where it was the abuse that had to be proven. The presumption of denial was a good supplementary policy where an international arms export ban was lacking.

The Dutch government abandoned this policy because it wants to join the Convention on export controls. Signed in the Airbus factory in Toulouse by Macron and Merkel, this treaty for jointly produced military material was later joined by Spain. France and Germany solved their dispute about jointly produced fighter jets to Saudi-Arabia, by agreeing that only the country responsible for the final assembly of common military production has to give an export license. The treaty applies to goods produced in joint projects between governments and between defence industries, and to military components that make up less that 20% of the end product.

The governments participating in the treaty thus partly give away their arms exports controls to other countries. Although the treaty is presented as a way to converge European arms export rules and foster defence industry cooperation, in practice it mostly means lowering arms exports rules to the lowest common denominator. Right now, France, Germany, Spain and possibly the Netherlands are the only partners in the agreement, but it seems plausible that more countries will join in the future as the agreement is presented as a way forward to manage European arms exports.

Joining NATO and leaving EU

The Netherlands is not the only country that has lifted arms export restrictions to Turkey. In a bid to join the North-Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), both Sweden and Finland have lifted their arms embargo on Turkey. Both countries installed this embargo in response to Turkey’s involvement in the Syria war, but abandoned this policy to gain Turkish approval to join NATO. It seems that joining NATO comes with a price; lowering your human rights standards.

Meanwhile, the UK has revised its arms export criteria in light of Brexit, as the country is not tied any more to the 2008 EU Common Position on Arms Exports. Although this position has never been waterproof and open to different interpretations, the UK’s new criteria seem even worse, due to the fact that they are formulated in a broader, vaguer, and more subjective manner. One of the key amendments in the text is the insertion of the phrase “if it [the Government] determines that there is a clear risk” in different criteria on exporting arms to countries involved in conflict or human rights abuses. This means that the granting of an export licence is not dependent any more on the possibility that arms might be used for conflict or repression, but rather whether the UK government thinks so – thus weakening the effectiveness of the controls.

Even worse are the plans of Italy. Currently, the CISD, a intra-ministerial body made up of government officials, checks whether arms exports are in line with existing bans and arms exports laws. Under a new law that the government is planning, this committee will get new powers that transform its role from a controlling body to a deciding body. In the future, the CISD will decide whether bans should be applied, instead of just enforcing them. Furthermore, the CISD does not have to consider any reports on human rights violations by international bodies and NGO’s any more. The CISD can thus evade international arms embargo’s and allow controversial arms exports to go ahead.

Win-win for arms industry

Arguing that a ‘strategic independent Europe’ will make us more safe, Europe is not only financing and supporting its arms industry more and more, it is also breaking down peace and human rights safeguards that have been developed by politicians, civil society organisations and civil servants for 25 years. This will lead to more violence and human rights violations and will force more people to flee their homes. To stop these refugees from coming to safety, Europe is militarising it border control.

For the arms industry, it is a win-win on all points. For European values it is a disgrace. And the upcoming elections for the European Parliament hardly give hope: militarisation and ‘European security’ is on top of many political party agenda’s. Hard times to come for people who want to address root causes of conflict instead of violent repression and the boosting of an industry that has war as its business model.

Djuna Farjon 29-05-2024

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