EU Weapons Exports Will Backfire

27 August 2019   ·   Klem Ryan

The European Peace Facility (EPF) is designed to make EU foreign policy stronger and more flexible. However, handing weapons to volatile states comes with great risk. The EU’s resources would be better spent on UN Peace Operations and independent monitoring of arms flows.

With internal state conflict spreading instability, undermining food security and development, while displacing millions of people in various regions around the world, the EU is seeking new tools to counter an increasingly complex security environment. One of these tools is the European Peace Facility (EPF), a fund designated to “provide comprehensive support through integrated packages which can include training, equipment and other means of support.”  

The EPF aims to strengthen EU foreign policy  

The EPF is a key policy initiative in a broader effort to streamline military coordination among EU states. It is designed to establish a stronger, more robust set of policy options better able to respond to the increasingly complex challenges and threats the EU faces. This includes building military partnerships with fragile states in an effort to increase their capacity to engage with conflicts more effectively. In allowing the EU to directly fund military operations, the EPF would supersede the current practice which has limited the provision of military aid under the prevailing view that such expenditure was prohibited by existing EU Treaties. This restriction on expenditure has limited the EU’s ability to provide a complete package of military aid in areas where it has sought to develop capacity through training and mentoring, such as Somalia and Mali. Supporters of the EPF argue that by not providing equipment, including uniforms, communication equipment, sanitation, and weapons (among other military equipment), the EU is not able to maximise the benefits of the training and capacity building that it is currently doing, thereby undermining the efforts to build effective partnerships.  

Discussions over how the EPF will be administered and overseen are on-going, so I will not pre-judge the final outcome of those negotiations and the exact working of the fund. However, the basic proposal aims to replace existing mechanisms (ATHENA and the African Peace Facility – which funds AMISOM operations in Somalia) with a single fund of €10.5 billion which could be used world-wide. The fund would be permanent and more flexible in responding to rapidly developing needs with a full range of military support, as determined by the particular situation. By providing weapons to countries facing complex conflicts, the rationale is that not only will training outcomes be enhanced but, importantly, so too cooperation and European influence and control over the security sector in the target states. This is meant to better position the EU to pursue solutions to these conflicts that align with its aims and principles.  

Weapons have a longer life-span than you think  

This assumption of improved influence and control is worth examining. Does supplying military equipment – and specifically weapons – lead to positive outcomes and influence over the use of these weapons? Recent examples suggest the answer is “no”.

First, an obvious but often overlooked point: weapons – particularly small arms – can have a very long service life. It was common in my work investigating arms trafficking in South Sudan to come across rifles manufactured in the 1960s still in service more than 50 years later. Indeed, many of the areas of complex conflicts that the EU is focused on, such as the Horn of Africa and the Middle East, are awash with weapons that have accumulated over decades of war. It goes without saying that these weapons are all-to-frequently used in very different ways from those originally envisaged. This creates a fundamental difficulty in assessing and managing risk when providing lethal technology, particularly in environments that are fragile and inherently unpredictable to start with. It is impossible to say with certainty that supplying small arms will produce the desired outcome over time, no matter how well intended.  

Secondly, providing weapons to the governments of fragile states does not reliably lead to greater influence and an ability to determine how and when the weapons are used. For instance, Uganda has long been a military partner of western countries and a major recipient of defence cooperation and support. This support has been intended to build capacity for counter-terrorism operations in the region. However, Uganda has simultaneously violated both EU and UN Security Council arms embargoes in direct opposition to western efforts to restrain ethnic violence in neighbouring conflicts.  

Exporting weapons means importing dependency  

Indeed, once weapons are supplied influence often works in the opposite direction to that envisaged; recipient countries gain financial influence as a source of revenue for the arms manufacturing industry of the supplying countries. Once arms supply links are established, this creates jobs and potential dependency in the supplying economy, as has been seen in the US and UK arms industry. Recent reporting on the influence of Saudi Arabia over the UK government in relation to the conflict in Yemen illustrates the level of influence that the recipients of weapons can have on political responses.  Rather than curtailing the use of weapons, this can have the effect of silencing dissent in the event that weapons are used in ways contrary to those originally intended by the supplier.  

The idea that the EU can develop effective influence through providing weapons is further undermined by the fact that Russia, China, Iran, and others also use military aid in this way. There is a distinct risk that, rather than developing influence, the EU will be pulled into an unwinnable competition with rivals who are willing to provide weapons with few strings attached. Russia and China have been very clear that their military support to fragile states is not contingent on restrictions on how it is used with regard to the human rights of domestic populations.    

While resigning oneself to the conclusion that negative actors will dominate the international arms trade is uncomfortable, the consequences of trying to compete directly with them are equally unpalatable. It is all but inevitable that, even with mitigation strategies in place, some EU weapons provided to fragile countries would be used to commit atrocities. When that happens, the political consequences can be severe. Democratic societies often retaliate against governments when they see weapons manufactured in their countries used to kill civilians in other countries, as recent court action against the UK government for its weapons sales in the war in Yemen illustrates. Furthermore, when atrocities occur, because of the likely political fall-out, there is often an instinctive response to find ways to distance the supplier from the consequences, leading to attempts to deny the evidence or otherwise evade accountability.  

Peace Operations are the better investment  

Whatever the hoped-for benefits of the EPF, the potential positives are speculative and almost certainly outweighed by the clear risks and substantial downside of sending more weapons into fragile states. It would be better to find more effective ways to limit the flow of further weapons into these states and to assist them in better controlling the weapons that are already there, than to add to the problem. For example, providing more troops from EU member states for UN peacekeeping operations would be a significant boost to complex operations in Somalia, Mali and South Sudan. Also, increasing funding for independent monitoring and reporting on arms flows would assist in better understanding the sources of instability in these complex contexts. This increased understanding would then need to be backed by more robust diplomatic measures (such as embargos and sanctions) on countries that consistently undermine EU efforts to restrain violent conflicts around the world.  

Friedenseinsätze Europäische Union Frieden & Sicherheit

Klem Ryan

Klem Ryan is a former coordinator and arms expert on the Security Council Panel of Experts on South Sudan. He is currently a consultant advisor on sanctions and mediation working in Africa. @Klem_Ryan_