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.