European arms trade, conflict catalyst
19-12-2014 -

Responsibilities of governments and control mechanisms disappear along with weapons over national borders.

Europe is one of the biggest arms traders in the world. Six European companies, BAE Systems, EADS, Cassidian, Finmeccanica, Thales and Rolls Royce are ranked in the 2013 top fifteen biggest arms companies in the world. In 2012 the European arms industry had a turnover of 96 billion euros. Almost 40 billion of this was destined for export. In 2012 the European countries issued 47,868 arms export licences. Only 459 were refused. In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, the value of the European export licences to the Arab region was 9 billion euros, double that of 2007.

A secure Europe in a better world’ is the title of the European security strategy approved by the European Council in December 2003. This document acknowledges that Europe is not separate from the rest of the world and that internal and external security are inextricably linked. It also states that economic relationships can be a source of (violent) conflict and that trade policy can therefore be a powerful instrument for conflict prevention. Conflict prevention, moreover, ‘cannot start too early' and ‘conflicts need political solutions'. These elements could just as easily have come from a text by Vredesactie. Unfortunately practice does not tally with this rhetoric.

In recent years the EU has stimulated the expansion of a European defence industry, an industry which depends on expanding arms trade to conflict regions for profitability. In 2012 forty percent of the European arms trade turnover was destined for export. European weapons turn up all over the world in conflicts and human rights violations. Of the fifty-one regimes labelled ‘authoritarian’ by the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index 2012 forty-three were able to buy weapons in the European Union. This shows that lax European arms export policy can function as a catalyst for conflicts worldwide.

How? Who?

Arms export control is under national authority. It is the national governments which refuse or grant arms export licences, in accordance with their own procedures. In Belgium arms export control is largely left to the individual regions. However, on 8 December 2008 the Common European Position on Arms Exports was approved by the European Council. This harmonizing framework is definitive for the policy of the European Member States and regions and is in fact primarily an exercise in settling for the lowest common denominator.

As in the national arms export policy, there is a serious contradiction in following the lowest common denominator. On the one hand eight criteria are listed for restricting arms exports. On the other hand the aim is a strong arms industry, for which (increased) arms export is of crucial importance.

According to the common position, the restricting criteria must always take priority over the commercial interests of the arms industry. In practice, however, this is not the case. In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, the value of the European export licences to the Arab region was 9 billion euros, double that of 2007. Almost forty percent of Belgian arms exports are directly intended for Arab countries. Almost half of all European firearms and ammunition exported to the Middle East comes from Belgium, according to Flemish newspaper De Standaard in 2013. Saudi Arabia buys so many light weapons from Belgium that ‘Saudi soldiers would need five arms each to carry them all’.

The Walloon government granting a licence for the sale of FN Herstal weapons destined for Gaddafi’s elite troops is a telling example of the way in which commercial interests weigh more heavily than ethical criteria. After various negative recommendations, and even the suspension of a previously granted licence by the Walloon Conseil d’État, in 2010 the Walloon Minister-President Rudy Demotte approved the supply of arms. Although the conflict in Libya had not yet reached its full intensity, human rights violations and the country’s undemocratic policy were well known.

The report‘Vlaamse buitenlandse wapenhandel 2013' (‘Flemish foreign arms trade 2013’), by the Flemish Peace Institute reaches hard conclusions regarding the Flemish arms trade decree to execute the European directive on the arms trade. Around half of previously awarded licences for arms exports have disappeared from the radar. These are for products which are not on the European control list, but which have a military end use. Part of our known arms exports go to other EU countries. On the basis of European legislation, Flanders allows large numbers of ‘general licences’. This means that these transactions for arms within the EU can be conducted without advance proceedings with certified customers. It is only required that this be reported retrospectively, so that parliamentary control is not possible until long after the fact. ‘We only have a partial picture of the transfer of products within the EU,’according to Tomas Baum of the Flemish Peace Institute. There is control in advance of export of arms from Flanders to countries outside the EU, but for this part of the export the end user of the weapons is only known in half of the cases.

In sum, our legislation on arms exports is as leaky as a sieve. Responsibilities of local governments and control mechanisms disappear along with weapons over national borders.

What if?

When arms manufacturers develop new (subsidised) arms technology, they want to earn money with it. They do everything in their power to persuade customers worldwide to buy those new weapons, not caring whether the weapons meet the requirements of a real security threat. If necessary a marketing campaign can ensure that they do. Sometimes it is unclear whether policy decisions follow from military or economic reasoning. Often no attempt is made to conceal the economic reasoning.

Imagine, however, that the EU, as stated in its security strategy, were to use its trade policy as a powerful instrument of conflict prevention. In that case 45,900 arms export licences would be refused, not 459. The defence industry would lose forty percent of its income. No money would be earned from weapons anymore. The pressure from arms dealers on our security policy would wither away.

What if European weapons could no longer be found in Libya, Syria, Israel, Iraq, Mexico, Mali, Nepal?

Let’s make a start: Istopthearmstrade.eu

Europe: one of the world's biggest exporters of arms
19-12-2014 -

Arms export is a lucrative business and is essential for the profitability of the European defence industry.

Nobody could fail to notice: over the last months we have been constantly faced with the horror of war and violence. Everybody's calling out to “do something”. Vredesactie and Agir pour la Paix are calling on you to take action.
Our European arms trade has helped to create uncontrollable monsters. European arms emerge in wars and human rights abuses worldwide. Of the fifty one regimes labelled as ‘authoritarian’ by the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index 2012, forty three could buy their arms in the European Union. It demonstrates that a lax European arms export policy can function as a catalyst for conflicts worldwide. There's a very good way to 'do something': let's stop the arms trade!

The horror in proper figures:

Five European companies rank in the top fifteen largest arms companies worldwide. BAE Systems, EADS, Finmeccanica, Thales and Safran. In 2012 the European arms industry had an annual turnover of 96 billion euros; of which almost 40 billion was intended for export. Arms export is a lucrative business and is essential for the profitability of the European defence industry. In 2012 European countries issued 47,868 arms export permits and only 459 were refused. These figures give an indication of the minimum export; we suspect that the actual extent is even greater. In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, European export permits to the Arab region amounted to nine billion euros, twice as much as in 2007.

Saudi Arabia is by far the most important client. Over a period of five years European member states delivered more than ten billion euros worth of arms to the Saudis. Even though the country is a well-known and important supplier to Jihadist terrorist networks in the region. A lot of the arms Saudi Arabia intended for the Syrian opposition fell into the hands of groups like the Islamic State (IS). This proves once again that a lax European arms export policy can be a catalyst for conflicts worldwide.

Lack of legislation

The European Union is described as a civil project in which the wish for peace is a central motive. But this picture is less and less in accordance with reality. Europe is one of the world's  biggest exporters of arms and some of the largest defence companies are established in Europe. Free trade between the different EU countries includes free trade in arms. Arms companies can transport their merchandise freely from one EU country to the other. Moreover, the EU has no enforceable criteria for arms export to countries outside the EU. As a result European arms companies can export worldwide through the European country with the least stringent export rules. One of the great successes accounted for by the lobbyists for the arms industries.

Principles versus economy

In 2008, all EU member states approved the Common European Position on Arms Exports. It was agreed that national governments would take eight criteria into consideration during the issuing of arms export permits. For example, they have to consider potential human rights abuses, the possible fueling of conflicts and the danger that arms would fall into the wrong hands. However, these normative criteria are extremely elastic and unenforceable by a court. Furthermore, the same policy document expressly contains the strengthening of the European arms industry. Principles of freedom and democracy are very easily swept under the carpet by member states when these have the potential to negatively affect the competiveness of their own arms companies.

This attempt at European harmonisation therefore is only ‘soft law’ and is in sharp contrast to the solidly anchored liberalisation of the defence market. After the 1990's waves of mergers in the United States we also saw an expansion and increase of scale in the European defence sector. Internal export controls were increasingly seen as obstacles to the development and trade in weapon systems. The European Union wanted to further liberalise the internal defence market and simplify cooperation across borders. The export controls were therefore drastically weakened rather than strengthened with a European Directive in 2009. When it comes to intra-European trade, defence companies no longer have to apply for separate permits. They only have to self-register their export to make a potential retroactive inspection possible. But only the immediate recipients are included in these registers. Information about the end-users cannot be found there. Authorities therefore lose track of where the military equipment produced in their territory goes.

The mesh is bigger than the net.

Since there is hardly any common policy for European arms export, the door is open to avoidance manoeuvres through the member state with the least stringent rules. National export rules can simply be bypassed through flexible transit possibilities via member states with laxer legislation. So it's not surprising that weapon systems manufactured in Europe surface in clandestine networks and dubious regimes.

In Flanders for example, it is not know who the end-user is for approximately two-thirds of the arms exported. The last known users are mostly foreign companies in another EU member state. Furthermore, an unknown quantity of Flemish technology has a military end-use but no obligation to have a permit because it concerns ‘dual use’ applications. As a result, military products which possibly have a civil application, disappear completely of the radar.

The arms lobby: at home in the European institutions

The initial European peace project is overshadowed by the expansion of an undemocratic military-industrial complex. The unification of the European arms market came into effect through the insistence of a few powerful companies, in the hope of crowding the smaller players out of the market. While drafting the European Directive to achieve this, the Commission consulted with representatives of arms companies such as EADS, BAE Systems, Thales and Finmeccanica. The European umbrella organization of the defence industry (ASD) played an active role in the process and even in amending the Directive.

 In the backrooms in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe, policymakers, arms dealers and lobbyists meet behind closed doors. Though there is no unified vision of a European foreign and security policy, powerful voices that insist on the necessity of a strong and competitive arms industry are having their say in the corridors of the European institutions. Through revolving door politics, advisory groups and lobbying, arms dealers have preferential access to the European decision making process. In this way they make sure their business interests are being taken into account. "What's good for business is good for everybody" is the argumentation. But if there's one sector to which this does not apply, it is most surely the arms industry.

With both regional and European policymakers, there is no political will to strengthen the criteria for arms trade and to make them enforceable in court. But if Europe wants to have any credibility as a peace project, it must urgently start working to remedy this.

Pages