European arms exports, militarisation and borders

[Introduction during online session 'Counting the Money' during the Alternative Security Conference of DiEM25, 27 April 2021]

EU arms exports

The countries of the EU together are the second largest arms exporter in the world, after the USA, and are responsible for about a quarter of the global total. During the last decade over 450 thousand arms export licences, worth €276 billion, have been granted in the EU. The largest customer was Saudi Arabia. Other important export destinations outside the EU include India, the USA, Egypt, Algeria, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Turkey. Or in other words: massive amounts of European arms end up in countries at war, with internal conflicts, authoritarian regimes and human rights violators. European arms exports have for example kept the Yemen War going and contributed to the violence, repression and chaos in the Middle East and North Africa. European arms companies BAE Systems, Airbus, Leonardo and Thales are among the largest military companies in the world and are the main winners of European arms exports.

The EU has arms export rules, the eight criteria from the so called ‘Common Position’, which should prevent exports for wars and human rights violations. Each member state is responsible for implementing these criteria when granting or refusing an arms export permit. Because of the vagueness of the criteria this has led to vastly different arms export regimes between member states, ranging from somewhat strict to very permissive. While some countries have halted or restricted arms exports to Saudi Arabia, for example, others have gone on providing large amounts of arms for the Yemen War. Repeated attempts to come to an EU arms embargo against Saudi Arabia have failed.

With or without an embargo, the EU arms exports criteria, which member states are bound to implement, have not prevented these highly problematic arms exports as well as many others fueling war and human rights violations all over the world. Other interests prevail. President Macron of France stated last December that severe human rights concerns regarding Egypt shouldn’t stand in the way of arms exports to the authoritarian regime of Sisi because it is more important to cooperate with it in the ‘War on Terror’ and to help build its military capacities.

Funding and lobby

The permissive export policies are not a coincidence. They must be seen in the context of EU foreign, military and trade policies that are all aimed at arms export promotion. A leading role in this is played by EU funding for research and development of new arms and security technologies. For the next seven years the EU will spend a total of €8 billion for the development of new arms under the new European Defence Fund. The lobby of the arms industry has been very influential in setting up this fund, as well as other financial instrument to its benefit. The regulation for the Defence Fund was based on an advisory report of a so-called ‘Group of Personalities’, made up majorily of representatives of the military and security industry, turning it into foremost a subsidy tool for the industry.

The EU promotes the Defence Fund as part of its attempts to build more of its own military capacities, echoing calls for higher European military budgets and less European dependence on the USA within NATO. It states that a stronger European arms industry is needed for these efforts and emphasizes that in turn this industry’s global competitiveness needs to be improved. This means: more European arms exports to strengthen European military capabilities.

Securitisation and militarisation

A coalition of armed forces, the military industry and rightwing politicians constantly pushes for higher military budgets and more arms purchases in general. However, the lobby of the military and security industry has broader goals than more funding, higher budgets and more support for arms exports. Seeking new markets after the end of the Cold War, and a temporary decrease in global military spending, it has moved into other areas as well.

Industry representatives have been successful in positioning themselves as experts on rising global political problems and phenomenons, such as climate change, pandemics and migration. In all instances they have been embraced by authorities in framing these developments as threats and security problems. This process of so-called ‘securitization’ leads to looking for militarised answers, happily provied by the military and securitiy industry presenting itself and its goods and services as the solution to deal with these problems.

EU border militarisation and externalisation

I will now zoom in on the issue of migration and border militarisation. Ever since the establishment of the Schengen Area in the early 1990s the EU has been building up security and control at its external borders, which has seen an extreme escalation since the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ of 2015. This has included sending military forces to the borders, the use of military equipment to stop migration, including drones and other autonomous systems, the expansion of biometric border control systems and the introduction of artificial intelligence for border control. The same large arms companies mentioned before, in particular Airbus, Leonardo and Thales, are the main beneficiaries of the European spending spree for border security. As cynical as it is: they profit twice at the expense of refugees: first, by fueling the reasons people are forced to flee with arms exports for war and repression; second, by providing the equipment to stop them on their migration journey.

The EU border guard agency Frontex has seen a vast expansion of its organisation, budgets and tasks since its establishment in 2005. Starting with a budget of €6 million in that year, this is now over 90 times as high, with €544 million in 2021. Under the current Multiannual Financial Framework, the seven year EU budget, Frontex gets at least €5.6 billion. Another €6.5 billion is reserved to fund member states measures to strengthen border security, including purchasing military equipment, under the new Integrated Border Management Fund. And under other financial instruments billions more are bound to go to EU member states, candidate member states and third countries for similar objectives.

Frontex will use part of its billions to build a 10,000 persons standing border guard corps and to buy or lease its own equipment for border security. A first large contract was issued last autumn: €50 million for drone surveillance services in the Mediterranean from Airbus, Israel Aerospace Industries and Elbit. Israeli ‘killer drones’, which are promoted as being tested on Palestinians, are now targeting desperate people looking for safety and a better life.

The pushbacks and violence at the borders in which Frontex is involved are a consequence of Europe’s obsession with keeping or getting refugees out, and the subsequent border militarisation. This also forces migrants to more dangerous routes, leading to an increase in the relative death toll amongst migrants coming towards Europe, and drives them into the hands of criminal smuggling networks. In other words: the EU creates the market it says it wants to fight.

Boosting and militarising border security and control is not something that is only happening at the external borders of the EU. The EU and its member states put pressure on third countries, using a carrot-and-stick approach, to act as outpost border guards to stop migrants before they reach Europe. This process of so-called border externalisation goes accompanied with military training, advice, funding for purchases of border security and control equipment and donations of such equipment. The EU pours billions of euros in a wide range of projects in this field. This has serious and far-reaching consequences, and not only for migrants. Once again, these policies lead to pushing migrants to more dangerous routes and into the hands of criminal smuggling networks. They also legitimize and strengthen authoritarian regimes, in particular their military and security forces, undermine migration-based economies, destabilize fragile states, divert development cooperation spending and are effectively a clear example of neocolonialism.

Again: the arms industry is one of the few winners. Some striking examples: the EU and Italy together paid Italian arms company Leonardo some €500 million to construct a border security system along Libya’s southern border. This project dates back to the Khadaffi regime, and has been stalled since the start of the civil war, but is still being negotiated for a restart. Germany donated tens of millions of euros worth of border security equipment from Airbus to Tunisia and is closely cooperating with Egyptian security forces for border security and many other things. French public-private company Civipol, owned by the state and large arms companies, was selected to set up fingerprint databases of the whole population of Mali and Senegal with €53 million funding from the EU Emergency Trust Fund for Africa. One of the objectives: seeking to identify irregular migrants from both countries in Europe and deport them.

Such external policies to pursue Europe’s own interests by providing arms and security equipment, giving military training and donating money aren’t confined to migration. The Merkel government in Germany has been the leading proponent of providing more arms to African countries, arguing that helping build their military capacities and extensive security infrastructures will lead to more stability around Europe. In reality, this will lead to providing tools for repression and to pumping arms in a highly volatile, conflict ridden region. Such policies are bound to result in more forced migration in the future, and continuing the cycle of keeping out the consequences of EU arms export and broader foreign and military policies by ever strengthening and expanding Fortress Europe. As human costs will rise, the arms industry profits will increase.