Weapons research is undermining European democracy

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

Federica Mogherini (L), EU High Representative for Foreign policy, and European Commissioner in charge of jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness, Jyrki Katainen (R) speak at a joint news conference about the reflection paper on the future of European Defence by 2025, and on the proposal for a European Defence fund, in Brussels, Belgium, 07 June 2017. EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

The European Parliament is voting on Thursday (18 April) on the European Defence Fund, a multi-billion military research programme. Not only is this Fund a step in the militarisation of the EU, but it is also undermining European democracy, writes Bram Vranken.

Bram Vranken is a campaigner and researcher with the Belgian peace organisation Vredesactie.

Civil society, scientists and thousands of citizens are calling on the European Parliament to not fund any military research. We call on MEPs to listen to these voices.

1739 billion dollars. That is the amount the world is spending on an annual basis on their armies. During the last decade, this number has only increased and has reached the highest number since the end of the Cold War.

Europe remains the second largest spender worldwide and even more worrying, the EU now seems to be keen on contributing to this global arms race.

In 2016 the European Commission proposed the establishment of a European Defence Fund, a 13 billion euro fund for military research and development.

The move came after years of lobbying by the defence sector and the advice of the so-called Group of Personalities, a high-level advisory group of which nine out of 16 members were arms companies and private military research institutes. No academics or civil society organisations were consulted.

This proposal was celebrated in a tweet by Commissioner Bienkowska as “good news for [the] defence industry”.

The last couple of months the European Parliament and the Member States have negotiated on a compromise text creating this Fund. The results are alarming. The compromise text undermines the role of the European Parliament, enshrines a lack of transparency and is extremely beneficial for the arms industry.

Arms industry in the driver’s seat

The arms industry has been in the driver’s seat from the very start. The same companies who advised the European Commission, turn out to be the biggest beneficiaries of the Preparatory Action on Defence Research, a 90 million preliminary programme to the bigger Defence Fund.

Especially the Ocean2020 project stands out, a project reserving 35 million euro for the development of surveillance drones and autonomous submarines. Six of the companies participating in Ocean2020 were also representatives in the Group of Personalities.

This has prompted the European Ombudsman to express its concerns on the functioning of the Group of Personalities.

The dominance of the weapons industry in the Group of Personalities results in unbalanced policies. The European Commission should safeguard the common interest, not the economic interests of one single sector. And certainly not a controversial sector making human suffering a profitable economic enterprise.

Ethics: a matter of secrecy

The decision if and how to kill another human being is a fundamental ethical decision and is tied in with the kind of weapon technology to be developed for this purpose. Not only the EU seems to be willing to fund controversial weapons such as drones and ‘defensive’ killer robots, but these decisions are becoming a matter of secrecy and backroom politics.

Several examples: the ethical screenings will be on the basis of a self-assessment by the arms industry. Moreover, the possibility to carry out ethical checks during project implementation or to terminate it on ethical grounds has been removed from the initial proposal of the European Commission.

Additionally, the list of independent experts to assist the Commission in evaluation and monitoring projects will not be made public, making it impossible for the Parliament, the media and civil society to double-check on possible conflicts of interest.

This should be especially worrying as a Freedom of Information request shows that several of the so-called ‘independent’ experts who are already being consulted for the Preparatory Action work for the defence sector. One of them is even an accredited lobbyist for the lobbying firm Eupportunity and has been involved in lobbying EU research policies.

No checks and balances

Not only is transparency being dismantled by the Defence Fund, checks and balances are also under fire. Under derogatory rules, the Commission wants to adopt the work programmes of the Defence Fund through ‘implementing acts’, basically excluding the European Parliament while member states are given a de facto veto power through the Programme Committee.

MEPs are voting on Thursday to sideline their own institution. This could set a dangerous precedent and would undermine the democratic role of the Parliament. Members of Parliament still have a chance however to resist the militarization of the EU and to safeguard European democracy.

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