Europe Is at War Over Arms Exports

The EU must start enforcing its export controls, or else risk making conflicts around the world even worse.

A Yemeni child looks out at buildings damaged in an air strike in the southern Yemeni city of Taiz on March 18, 2018.
A Yemeni child looks out at buildings damaged in an air strike in the southern Yemeni city of Taiz on March 18, 2018. Ahmad Al-Basha/AFP/Getty Images

Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia’s oil production was at least temporarily halved after drone attacks on some of its oil infrastructure. Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen claimed credit for the strikes, although many observers suspected that Iran itself was to blame. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that the devastation in Yemen has been exacerbated by the European Union’s poorly coordinated arms export policy, which has also weakened Europe’s foreign policy and its credibility as a principled power.

The EU does have an arms export policy—the 2008 Common Position on arms export controls—which sets out eight criteria by which member states must judge potential export licenses, including respect for human rights and international humanitarian law in the destination country.

But because defense has traditionally been a matter of national sovereignty, arms policy is implemented and enforced at the national level. And all too often, member states ignore the common controls and make decisions about arms exports based on commercial and political pressures. Even though the Common Position is legally binding, there is no formal EU mechanism to enforce it.

By restricting arms supplies, the EU can put pressure on a state to change its behavior or send a strong signal of disapproval.

Arms exports can be a useful foreign-policy tool. By restricting arms supplies, the EU can put pressure on a state to change its behavior or send a strong signal of disapproval, condemning human-rights abuses or violations of international humanitarian law. At the very least, such an embargo ensures that the union avoids contributing to a humanitarian crisis or atrocity. For example, in April 2018, the EU extended and strengthened its long-standing arms embargo on Myanmar, condemning widespread, systematic, and grave human-rights violations by that country’s military and security forces.

On the flip side, by exporting arms, European countries can also help allies and partners deter shared adversaries. For instance, in an attempt to counterbalance Chinese dominance in Asia, the United States and some EU countries are exporting arms to Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.

However, arms exports can alter regional dynamics in unpredictable ways. In recent years, for instance, Europe and other Western powers have sold large amounts of arms to Saudi Arabia in an effort to deter Iran and stabilize the region. This has proved misguided.

Arms supplied predominantly by the United Kingdom, France, and the United States enabled Saudi Arabia to launch a military intervention in neighboring Yemen in 2015. After the Yemeni government in Sanaa was overthrown by Shiite Houthi rebels, believed to be backed by Iran, Saudi Arabia began airstrikes with a coalition of nine other Sunni-led Arab countries. The British and French governments continue to insist that arms exports to the coalition are necessary to counter Iranian dominance. Yet far from restoring regional balance, the conflict has left 22 million people, three-quarters of all Yemenis, in need of humanitarian aid and protection, while also bleeding over Yemen’s borders in the form of a spate of attacks on Saudi soil and interests.

The question of arming Saudi Arabia has split Europe. As the humanitarian crisis in Yemen has deepened, public opposition has grown, leading the Netherlands, Belgium, and Greece to restrict arms sales, starting in 2016. The murder of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018 only intensified criticism of the kingdom’s human-rights record and its intervention in Yemen. Shortly thereafter, Germany and others suspended all arms exports to the kingdom, including component parts.

The German decision held up shipments to Saudi Arabia of Eurofighter Typhoon fighter jets, which include German parts but are manufactured by the British company BAE Systems, and Meteor air-to-air missiles, which are manufactured by MBDA (jointly owned by France, Germany, Italy, and the United Kingdom). The United Kingdom and France—Europe’s biggest arms exporters to the Saudis—have publicly criticized Germany and pressed German Chancellor Angela Merkel to revoke the decision, even though U.N. experts have concluded that Saudi Arabia is violating international human rights and humanitarian law in Yemen, something that should trigger the EU’s own rules about arms exports.

The failure of European governments to properly apply the Common Position means that Europe’s member states are at risk of violating international law themselves. Recent legal actions in the U.K. and Italy have challenged the countries’ export licensing processes and may yet shift European policy. As the Independent reported, the U.K. Court of Appeal ruled that the British government’s decision-making process for export licenses to Saudi Arabia had been unlawful, because it had failed to assess whether the Saudi-led coalition violated international humanitarian law during the Yemen conflict. And three nongovernmental organizations have filed a criminal complaint against Italy’s export licensing authority and the arms company RWM Italia, alleging criminal liability for the export of weapons used in the airstrike on Deir Al-Hajari on October 8, 2016, which killed six civilians.

For now, the war in Yemen poses a serious danger to the region—and also to Europe’s foreign-policy interests there. The conflict has allowed extremist organizations to flourish, and it could lead to increased migratory pressures. Spillover from the conflict could harm EU investments in Egypt, Iran, and Syria, as well as undermine maritime security in the Gulf of Aden, a vital shipping artery, and in the Horn of Africa. Without a common policy, Europe’s ability to exert pressure on the warring parties and contain the conflict is stymied.

A truly common EU arms export policy would require a supervisory body controlled by the European Commission to report violations of the Common Position. The European Court of Justice could sanction rulebreakers. But there is no appetite among member states to surrender their sovereignty in this area, much less to make the required changes to the EU’s treaties.

However, there are smaller steps that the EU can take to improve its arms export regime. The EU should clarify important terms in the Common Position such as what constitutes a “clear risk” that weapons might be used to commit “serious violations” of international law. The union should also implement stronger end-use controls at the EU level to ensure that arms do not end up in unintended hands. Some member states—particularly Germany and France, the two major European powers—could also seek binding intergovernmental commitments to abide by the EU’s export criteria.

If it can stop warring over its arms export policy, Europe and the world will be better off.

This article draws upon the new CER policy brief “Up in Arms: Warring Over Europe’s Arms Export Policy,” co-authored with Sophia Besch.

Beth Oppenheim is a researcher at the Centre for European Reform (CER).  Twitter: @BethOppenheim

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