Arms exports: A business without an EU policy

Credit: Alexia Barakou

Weapons are part of our foreign policy, not of our economic policy. But this fact is not always acknowledged, says Siemon Wezeman, senior researcher at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute  (SIPRI). 

“We compete in the markets for purely commercial economical reasons. We forget that the idea of arms transfers, also within the EU, is that political reasons are the main thing.”

By economic output, EU member states earned almost €190 billion from selling arms and military equipment all over the world between 2013 and 2020. 

Political reasoning does not seem to carry the same weight. EU countries sold weapons to conflict zones, to countries under embargo, and even to both sides of conflicts. Some member states might deny companies an export license but this does not always mean that the weapons will not reach their destination. 

Among the top 10 destinations for arms export by EU countries are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Algeria and United Arab Emirates. Member states seem to be exporting arms, no matter the internal situation of the destination country. 

Good rules — on paper

The EU has had a common arms export policy, called the Common Position, since 2008. “That is a good document,” says Tobias Heider, advisor on security and defence of the Greens/EFA, in an interview with Investigate Europe. 

The Common Position includes eight criteria that states have to consider when issuing export licenses: international obligations, adherence to human rights, the internal situation, and reservation of regional peace. They should also take into account security and stability, national security, membership in human rights and arms control conventions, arms export controls, and the danger that disproportionate military capacities could impair development.

The only things missing from these criteria are corruption and the democratic status of the recipient country, Heider notes. “But otherwise, it is a great policy, at least on paper. But in operational terms, these eight criteria hardly play a role in the national export decisions of most countries.” 

Investigate Europe recently revealed how 10 EU Member States have exported the first €346 million worth of military equipment to Russia in recent years, despite the embargo that came into force in July 2014. 

In total, EU countries have exported €607 million worth of military equipment to Russia in the period between 2013-2020*. The arms export value to Ukraine was €320 million.  

Investigate Europe has analysed arms exports by EU countries in general: which countries are the biggest exporters, who are the buyers, and how this trend has changed over the years. We also looked for denials of licenses and the reasons for them, and asked how the EU policy on arms exports functions — or does not function.

Germany and France are leading arms exporters 

Germany is the main arms exporter among EU countries, with €49.4 billion export value between 2013 and 2020, according to German national reports. It is closely followed by France, (€48.7 billion, in the eight years reviewed). These two countries cover half of the arms exports in the EU, according to the available data from COARM and German reports.

The big exporters following Germany and France are Spain (€30 billion) and Italy (€22 billion).

Arms export over years

Arms exports by Germany and France went up after 2014. Germany doubled its export value in one year, from around €3.9 billion, to €7.8 billion in 2015.  

The record was set for both countries in 2019: €10 billion in arms exports by France and eight billion by Germany. The fall in 2020 was huge, especially for France.

But what happened with arms export in 2019? 

According to the information from COARM, in 2019 France had huge exports to Qatar, worth €3.3 billion. This is the biggest single export in the whole database. The data covers 23 member states and their global export in the period between 2013 and 2020. 

France does not report what kind of military equipment was sold. But according to information from licenses issued for Qatar in that year, it could have been bombs, missiles, rockets, armored and protective equipment, aircraft and ground vehicles, electronic equipment, technology and software. 

Data from German national reports shows that the biggest export in 2019 was to Hungary, worth almost €1.8 billion. In that year Germany sent Hungary all types of arms and military equipment — bombs, missiles, and related equipment, ammunition, technology and electronic equipment. 

Where do EU arms go?

But these are just two examples of big arms sales. Overall, the United States is the main destination for EU weapons, followed by Saudi Arabia. In the period between 2013 and 2020, more than €15 billion worth of arms and military equipment from EU ended up in the US,  and more than 12 billion in Saudi Arabia. 

Among the top destinations are also the biggest exporters, Germany and France, who sell and buy in great volumes.

Following the traces of the biggest exporters among EU members, we checked the main destinations for their weapons. 

Licenses can be denied, but are usually not

The EU has this rule: when a member state refuses an arms export license, it must notify the other member states via the so-called COARM Online System. It also has to explain why. 

The most frequent reason (40%) of all denials was the “existence of a risk that the military technology or equipment will be diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions”. Another very common reason was the respect for human rights and the internal situation at the final destination. 

Between 2013 and 2020, 2,210 licenses for arms export were denied by EU countries. In the same period 323,602 licenses were approved. This means that only 0.7 percent of all license requests were turned down.

The biggest number of denied licenses between 2013 and 2020 was for Russia, Pakistan, Thailand, China and Ukraine (more than 100 for each of these destinations).

Opportunity to undercut others

EU states may “review” a license which has been denied in another EU country. They may initiate a “consultation” with the country that denied the license.  According to the COARM reports, there were 925 consultations, which means that almost 40 per cent of denied licenses were reviewed by other member states. 

However, consultations cannot prevent an export, and the result of consultations is not public. If a country decides to issue a license which was previously refused in another member state, that would be called “undercutting”.

“The Common Position says that you are not supposed to undercut”, Siemon Wezeman at SIPRI tells Investigate Europe.He explains that one government should not take over a delivery of weapons that another country has denied. “But this still happens”, Wezeman says.

There are different forms of undercutting. The term itself may also be tricky, explains the arms export expert: even if all countries refuse the same license, there might be space for some country to export a similar weapon.

“And that is the question: how similar does it have to be before it becomes undercutting? That is a very technical discussion,” says Wezeman. 

The information about denied licenses is confidential, except in the Netherlands. Investigate Europe analyzed the COARM reports to check for possible undercutting cases. 

Czech interest in denied licenses

In recent years, the Czech Republic initiated the highest number of consultations with other EU countries, sometimes even a half of them. This means that the government in Prague reviewed many licenses that were denied by other countries. 

On the other side, Germany receives a lot of consultations. This means that the German authorities have denied to issue licenses that some other member states later were willing to sell. 

Anyway, as results of consultations are confidential, we were not able to identify concrete cases of undercutting.

*Our data analysis is based on information about export value and denials published in the COARM database, that covers the period between 2013 and 2020. COARM is the EU Council Working Party on Conventional Arms Exports. Each year, EU countries submit national reports with data about arms trade to this EU institution. And while all countries submit data about licenses, not all of them report on a value of exports. This is the case of Germany, Greece, Cyprus and Belgium, – as well as the UK before Brexit. 

For this analysis we used COARM data and added numbers from German national reports that are annually provided to the German parliament. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) also has a valuable database on arms exports based on a different methodology, covering mostly deals for “large” weapons.

Nico Schmidt and Attila Kalman contributed to the research for this article.