Up in Arms: Warring Over Europe's Arms Export Regime
(Source: Centre for European Reform; issued Sept. 10, 2019)
Together, the EU’s member-states are second only to the US in the volume of arms they export.1 But EU arms export policy is poorly co-ordinated. The divergence is weakening Europe’s ability to achieve its foreign policy objectives, undermining not only its credibility as a principled, values-driven power but also its recent high-profile initiatives to improve European defence capabilities.

Europeans recently fell out over arms exports to Saudi Arabia. Following the murder of Saudi journalist and dissident Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, Germany decided to suspend all arms exports to the kingdom. Other European countries including Finland, Denmark and Norway had already taken this decision following the devastating Saudi-led intervention in Yemen in 2015. France and the UK, however, sharply criticised Germany and pressed Chancellor Angela Merkel to revoke the decision.

Too often, arms exports are driven by political, economic and industrial concerns, rather than by the EU’s own laws and guidelines. Governments are not only concerned with national security and regional stability, but also with facilitating the exports of domestic defence companies, which generate profits, jobs and tax revenues. Thus the allure of large arms contracts can skew a country’s foreign policy.

The Saudi case underlines the need for a co-ordinated European arms export policy, which should have three strands. The first is arms control: keeping arms and dual-use goods out of the wrong hands, that is, state or non-state actors that could use them to violate international law or create instability.2 The second is targeted arms exports: selling military equipment to actors with shared security challenges. The third strand is the arms industry itself: a consistent, predictable and shared arms export policy would help support European capability development and foster a stronger European defence industry.

Arms exports have been repeatedly excluded from EU treaty provisions. Member-states are unwilling to surrender their autonomy in this area of defence policy, which is guarded as a matter of national sovereignty. Attempts by the EU to co-ordinate national policies have repeatedly failed. The Council of the EU is currently reviewing the EU’s guidelines on arms exports: now is the time for a closer look at the EU’s arms export regime.

This policy brief argues in favour of an effective common European arms export policy, examining its potential to support foreign policy through several case studies, and how it can support the EU’s ambition to build a strong European defence industrial base. We assess the EU’s current arms export regime, and ask whether a greater role for the EU in arms export regulation is possible and compatible with member-states’ interests. Finally, we make recommendations on how Europe’s arms export policy could be improved.


Click here for the full report (15 PDF pages), on the CER website.

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