The EU is currently the second-largest arms supplier in the world, after the US and before Russia, and a new European Parliament report by MEP Hannah Neumann (Greens) is set to urge the Commission and member states to address concerns over the lack of transparency and common arms export rules across the bloc.
“There’s a broad agreement across political parties to support the call for increased transparency and coherence on EU arms exports,” Neumann told EURACTIV in an interview. “But we know that once it comes to concrete activities and measures to take, some significant differences remain.”
The 2008 EU Common Position has established legally binding criteria, including the ban of arms exports that provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing conflicts, and Council conclusions in 2019 reaffirmed that “military equipment and technology should be traded in a responsible and accountable way”.
Although there has been more and more cooperation on arms production among member states, arms exports still remain a largely national responsibility.
“Member states have very different ways of interpreting the common position, leading to different export decisions, which becomes especially problematic when member states cooperate to produce arms that are exported to third countries,” Neumann said.
According to her, one solution could be increased transparency in the EU’s Working Party on Conventional Arms Exports (COARM), which operates as a forum where the member states communicate and share information on their export policies to non-EU countries, and on national denials of applications for export licenses to non-EU countries.
“I would like to see reporting of the licences that have been granted, of the actual exports, but also of denials, because then we could see the discrepancies between member states, and they could be discussed in COARM,” Neumann said.
“With the European Parliament’s forthcoming report on arms exports, we make recommendations on how, on the EU level, reporting could be improved so that it allows for an informed debate,” the Green rapporteur said, stressing that EU-produced arms are used to kill civilians in armed conflicts, which demonstrates the importance of the political debate on arms exports.
“For this debate to actually take place, we as parliamentarians, but also the citizens, need transparency. We have a right to know sufficient details about arms exports and be able to compare and assess the exports. With the information we currently receive from member states, this is not always possible.”
‘Europeanisation’ of arms exports
Neumann also warned that European research and development and the multilateral or European arms production will only aggravate the problem.
With several multi-nation military projects, such as Europe’s largest arms project to date, the ‘Future Air Combat System’ (FCAS), it is yet to be defined who will make the export decision for a product where spare parts, research and development involve several member states.
“At present, it is generally the country that ‘puts in the last screw’. But this is problematic, as it could be an incentive to opt for the end production to take place in a country with the least restrictive export practice.”
“On the other hand, problems like the situation with France and Germany may arise, where some countries are blamed for blocking the export of the entire product, just because they implement what is actually written down in the common position,” Neumann added.
During negotiations over the European Defence Fund (EDF), meant to fund research and development projects and support the European defence industry, MEPs and NGOs had flagged that there may not be enough scrutiny over how and what investments are made, particularly as there are no common arms export rules across the bloc.
According to the Commission’s latest budget proposal, the EDF is set to receive €8 billion in funding.
Although the preamble of the agreement includes the restriction that the Commission needs to be informed over export to third countries from equipment that has been developed with EDF funding, and can ask its funding back if it considers an export violates the bloc’s common foreign and security policy, there is no substantial monitoring mechanism.
“With the European Defence Fund and other funding initiatives at the EU level, we might have EU funded weapons systems. Who will decide about the export of these arms?” Neumann asked.
“As we see a growing Europeanisation of arms production, we also need to see a growing coherence when it comes to arms exports,” she added.
Meanwhile, the new French-brokered European Peace Facility (EPF), which could potentially be used to boost EU presence in Africa, could pose a similar problem.
“We have major concerns about arms supply, as the EU apparently intends to provide weapons to some of the partners in training missions,” Neumann said.
According to the MEP, the ‘equip’ part of ‘train and equip’ will pose a challenge to control the purpose of the weapons provided to third countries.
“As the EU as such has never engaged in arms exports, it remains unclear who would be in charge of such exports. Who would bring the weapons to a specific place? Who would check end-users?”
Franco-German lead needed
For anything to be successful, Neumann said, it has to be backed by France and Germany, since they are the two biggest exporters.
Germany’s curbs on arms exports to non-EU or non-NATO countries, most recently to Saudi Arabia, have been a thorn in the side of Franco-German cooperation for years, also blocking consensus at EU level.
A bilateral attempt to create common rules last year had been unsuccessful and, according to Neumann, “replicating the situation we saw last year over and over again would hamper rather than improve European defence cooperation.”
“If Paris and Berlin would come to an agreement, that would be a pretty solid blueprint for a European solution and I want to make sure that such an approach builds on transparency and the criteria outlined in the common position to which both have agreed already.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]