COLOGNE, Germany — France’s ambassador to Germany is pushing Berlin to loosen its restrictive stance on arms exports to Saudi Arabia, arguing Europe’s fledgling defense identity depends on it.
“Credible export opportunities based on clear and predictable rules are an indispensable prerequisite for the continuation of our European defense industry,” Anne-Marie Descôtes wrote in an essay published Tuesday by the Berlin-based Federal Academy for Security Policy.
Arms makers here rely on exports because the European market alone is too small to keep the lineup of defense companies in business, she argued. The French ambassador decried Germany’s tendency to treat weapons exports as a matter of national policy, as opposed to considering them in the context of alliances.
Descôtes’ comments come as Germany faces a make-or-break moment in a public debate that has lasted months. Local media reported Tuesday that the Bundessicherheitsrat, a secretive cross-Cabinet panel, would convene Wednesday to debate the continuation of an embargo against Riyadh that is slated to expire at the end of the month.
The Social Democrats, to which both Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Maas and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz belong, have pushed to extend the ban unless Saudi Arabia demonstrates the will to achieve peace in neighboring Yemen. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, meanwhile, has signaled it is ready to abandon German “maximalist positions,” a turn of phrase believed to mean appeasing France and the United Kingdom in the interest of European unity.
Government officials in those countries have called on the Merkel government to rethink its embargo on Saudi Arabia — put in place after the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — because Germany’s veto on jointly produced weapons has a domino effect on vendors there.
It’s alleged Khashoggi was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, last fall. Western officials believe Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was involved in orchestrating the killing. The regime has denied any knowledge of it, instead describing the crime as a rogue operation gone wrong.
In her essay, Descôtes dings Germany for allegedly blocking a preference for the acquisition of European weapon systems – “which France advocates” – to prop up the continent's defense industry. “The European arms market is one of the most open, unlike that of the United States,” she wrote.
“That means that a number of EU member countries, for various reasons, prefer to buy their defense equipment outside Europe, which diminishes the already fragmented European market,” the ambassador added. “This is sovereign and legitimate decision, but it makes it difficult to strengthen the European defense industry.”
The issue of sovereignty has kept popping up as perhaps a central point of contention between Germany and France as the two countries embark on a quest to make European defense great again. While leaders in both nations have talked at length about the need to sacrifice national decision-making authority toward the greater multilateral good, there appears to be little agreement on the details.
According to Descôtes, arms sales should remain firmly under the purview of national governments, for example, whereas some here have pushed for a European approach. “The French government believes that every state must strive toward practicing a responsible arms-exports policy in accordance with international obligations, to strengthen our collective defense and to reflect the responsibilities of all decisions to that end,” she wrote.
Sebastian Sprenger is associate editor for Europe at Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multi-national investments in defense and global security. Previously he served as managing editor for Defense News. He is based in Cologne, Germany.