The change we need is EU arms export control

#CriticalThinking

Picture of Bodil Valero
Bodil Valero

Member of the European Parliament for the Swedish Green Party

Bodil Valero is a Member of the European Parliament for the Swedish Green Party

In Yemen, the Saudi-led coalition heads a bombing campaign that has targeted and killed thousands of civilians, while a naval blockade has left the people on the verge of famine, unable to receive various aid packages. Nevertheless, European Union countries have continued to export weapons to Saudi Arabia for billions of euros.

In Egypt, the military regime is brutally silencing all dissent and political opposition. Yet despite the EU Council’s decision in 2013 to halt all arms exports, arm deliveries to Egypt have continued.

And in conflict-torn Syria, EU-made Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns are being found in the hands of militias and terrorist groups, prolonging the suffering and destruction.

In all three cases, European member states are funding these atrocities. This is a clear sign that the EU needs to change the way it is controlling arms exportation. While it is recognised that we need arms production for our own legitimate defence and security, we should never accept that arms are exported in a manner that violates our rules, contradicts our values and weakens that very security we seek.

EU-made Kalashnikovs, rocket launchers and heavy machine guns are being found in the hands of militias and terrorist groups

For two consecutive years I have been the rapporteur for the European Parliament’s annual report on arms export controls. With colleagues from other party groups, we have convinced the parliament to stand behind a number of progressive suggestions for changes in common EU rules on arms exports ‒ the so-called common position ‒ and its application.

Could we succeed in getting rid of illegitimate and irresponsible arms exports? Yes, of course we can. But this requires effort from all European member states.

An important first step the EU can take in changing the attitude of states that export arms would be stricter implementation of the common position. EU rules on arms exports ‒ the eight criteria of the Council’s common position ‒ are clear and just.

If implemented correctly they would make arms deals, like the ones described above, impossible. But the criteria are applied differently depending on which recipient state you look at. It is not unusual that so called ‘strategic allies’ or ‘friendly nations’ get a pass, even when they clearly violate the rules.

This has to change. The criteria must be applied fully and coherently across member states. Since arms have long life spans, it is essential to make long term risk assessments. Instead of simply assessing each product and the risk of it being misused, I have suggested using a precautionary principle and to also look at the recipient states’ democratic status. Sweden has already implemented such legislation, and we are now looking for the rest of Europe to follow suit.

An increase in scrutiny and accountability for those that export arms is another step the EU can take. However, for scrutiny to work, we need reliable statistics. Many member states submit reports that are both late and incomplete, making it difficult for parliaments, journalists or citizens to hold governments accountable.

I have proposed introducing sharp deadlines for reporting and uniform format requirements. Instead of reporting the value and quantity of licenses granted we should use statistics on actual deliveries ‒ a much more relevant measure. Member states failing to report correctly should be fined. Digitalising the reporting system and making it easily accessible online is a must. This is now being discussed in the Council’s Working Group for Arms Control (COARM), but it is important that member states move from discussions to decisions.

It is not enough to demand arms embargos or stricter national regulation if the common position is so easily ignored

Finally, it is not enough to demand arms embargos or stricter national regulation if the common position is so easily ignored. Instead of having each member state control and sanction itself, it is time we give the common position some teeth and open up the possibility for an EU sanctions mechanism. Breaking the rules has to come at a cost. The European Parliament stood with the Greens/European Free Alliance and my colleagues to open up a process leading towards the possibility of a real sanctions mechanism, where states are held accountable for breaking the rules. If a change in the treaty is needed for that to happen, I strongly believe member states have to be open to consider it.

This should not in any way mean handing over foreign policy and defence directly to EU institutions. It simply means creating a system where rules that have been agreed upon are followed. It is common sense and about time that decisions are made.

The European Parliament has taken the lead in the fight against illegitimate and irresponsible arms exports. Now in order for us to succeed, member states need to follow.

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