Up in arms

This report from the UK think tank the Centre for European Reform looks at Europe’s arms export regime.

The European Union’s poorly co-ordinated arms export regime is undermining its foreign policy and ambition to become a credible defence actor. That is the key conclusion of new analysis by the Centre for European Reform entitled ‘Up in arms: Warring over Europe’s arms export regime’ which finds serious shortcomings in the EU’s current regime. Combined, the EU’s member-states are the second largest arms exporter in the world after the US. Despite this, the Union’s arms export regime is inadequate. The EU might have a common arms export policy on paper, but in practice, European countries operate their own, often conflicting policies, driven by national commercial and political concerns. Member-states consider defence a matter of national sovereignty, and are unwilling to surrender any of their autonomy to Brussels. This disjointed approach makes it much harder for Europe to present a coherent united foreign policy and effectively pursue its interests.

A dispute between EU member-states about whether to sell weapons to Saudi Arabia is the most recent example of the failings of the Union’s arms export regime. Germany suspended arms exports to the Kingdom last year after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, drawing criticism from France and Britain. As a result, the EU was unable to reach a consensus on how to respond to Saudi Arabia’s violations of international law at home and in Yemen. That followed similar disagreements about whether to impose sanctions including an arms embargo on Venezuela in 2017, and whether to supply arms to rebel groups in Syria in 2013.

These cases underline the need for a genuinely co-ordinated EU arms export policy based on three pillars: improved controls to keep weapons and ‘dual-use’ goods that can be used for civilian or military purposes out of the hands of those who might use them to violate international law or create instability; targeted exports to allies that need European support to address shared security challenges; and a shared export policy that helps European defence firms to work together to improve the EU’s own capabilities. A common and enforceable EU arms export regime, including a sanctions mechanism and supervisory arms control body, should be the ultimate goal, but is unlikely, as it would require treaty change and there is currently no appetite among member-states to give up sovereignty over arms exports. For now, EU countries should attempt to reach a shared view on the security context of arms exports, improve reporting by member-states, tighten end-use controls and reach inter-governmental export agreements.

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