WASHINGTON – The new German government’s focus on a common arms-export policy for the European Union is facing an uphill battle after one French official indicated this week Paris remains unwilling to cede its national say on the thorny subject.
The nudge from Berlin popped up in the coalition agreement between the governing Social Democrats, the Green Party and the Free Democrats last month. The document is something of a playbook for the new government’s agenda, including on defense and foreign policy.
A pet topic of the Greens, the party now heading the foreign ministry with Annalena Baerbock, weapons-exports debates have a history of creating friction in the German-French defense relationship. A dispute over export terms for Future Combat Air System technology almost sank that program before it even kicked into high gear a few years ago.
The French position of keeping export decisions a purely national affair remains the same, according to Alice Guitton, the director general for international relations and strategy at the French Ministry of Defense.
Any effort to consolidate decision-making power at the EU level would face “great difficulties,” she said at a Dec. 16 press conference in Paris. The bloc’s founding documents, she added, guarantee a “national prerogative” when it comes to selling weapons abroad.
It remains to be seen how forcefully the new German government intends to pursue negotiations on the subject. The coalition agreement is somewhat soft on the wording, saying the governing parties in Berlin aim to “coordinate” with European partners a restrictive export policy with “more binding rules.”
The passage also lists the objective of overhauling Germany’s national arms-export regime into a single law modeled after a common EU position. While such a position has been on the books since 2008, member states are not obligated to follow it in individual sales cases.
Germany’s national laws are confusing because they oscillate between a default permission — or a default ban — to export defense technology, depending on the recipient and the types of wares involved, explained Christian Mölling of the Berlin-based German Council on Foreign Relations.
France’s defense industry depends on exports because its capacity exceeds the demands of the national armed forces. The government therefore routinely fêtes sales to countries ideologically outside the values-based circles of EU or NATO governments, like Egypt or Brazil.
Germany is considered more restrictive than other EU members when it comes to exporting weapons to governments with a history of human-rights violations, for example, though exceptions are often shielded by a considerable degree of secrecy in Berlin’s decision-making.
Proponents of a more restrictive arms-exports policy run by Brussels argue the move would eliminate an obvious contradiction to the democratic values leaders tend to recite as a battle cry against policies by China or Russia.
According to Mölling, Germany alone is unlikely to break new ground toward that end. Berlin stands to lose important leverage on the international stage if it were to let values calls guide its foreign policy entirely, he argued. “We would have enforced our values, indeed,” he said. “But those would apply only at home.”
Sebastian Sprenger is Europe editor for Defense News, reporting on the state of the defense market in the region, and on U.S.-Europe cooperation and multinational investments in defense and global security. He previously served as managing editor for Defense News.