«We need to set aside our instinct to take action at national level»
Interview with Tony Fortin
You have just published your shadow report on the parliamentary oversight of arms exports in France, Germany, the UK and the Netherlands. What struck you most when comparing the procedures in place and what can we learn from this to advance the restriction of arms exports?
What might seem obvious, but is worth repeating, is that social change started with the mobilisation of civil society in Europe. First there were the anti-militarist peace movements of the 1970s and 1980s which led to other forms of protest in the 1990s: activist centres of expertise, more activist-minded associations, trade unions, churches, political parties and human rights organisations. At the time, the Gulf War and the conflicts in Sierra Leone, Rwanda and Angola stoked disagreement and debate focusing on the impact of small arms. This resulted in the establishment of a European regulation, the 1998 Code of Conduct for Arms Exports, that imposed export criteria, such as respect for human rights and transparency, on EU Member States. Member States then went in different directions: Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands established parliamentary oversight mechanisms, such as dedicated parliamentary committees and notification systems for executive decisions. They also improved access to information and defence secrets. Data on arms transfers are generally available on websites, thus making monitoring possible. And governments respond in detail to requests submitted by parliament. These practices do not exist in France. Since the practice of reporting to parliament was established in 2000, France has not evolved in terms of its institutions or the right to information on this subject. On the contrary, the country has moved backwards in terms of transparency.
Based on your findings in the four countries, what events and actions paved the way for implementing stricter parliamentary oversight?
Clearly, parliamentary mechanisms are not enough; they are only means to an end. Governments would like to have us believe that arms sales are a complex technical issue, something for experts. This is a way of ignoring critical voices. As soon as an arms sale is made as the result of a political decision, each citizen must make some choices: What kind of society do we want? What importance do we attach to military power? This is exactly why organising demonstrations, protesting at arms trade shows, questioning members of parliament and so on are essential activities and are key constituent elements of democracy. Accordingly, the many actions – demonstrations, street events, drafting of reports, petitions, legal action – undertaken by activists were crucial in raising awareness among the general public and parliament. In Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, activists are a true counterweight to the central government. Religious organisations – such as the Quakers in the United Kingdom, the Churches in Germany, and Pax Christi in the Netherlands – and trade unions are also very actively involved in those countries.
In your report, you ask whether parliamentary oversight has a real impact on future export decisions. Do the findings of your report suggest that parliamentary oversight is actually effective?
Yes. It is clear that establishing greater democracy makes it possible to have an impact on future arms decisions. In addition to involving parliament in the debate on arms exports, effective parliamentary oversight and transparency measures help reverse the 'burden of proof': information is immediately accessible, which means NGOs and journalists no longer have to dig it out, as is the case in France. It is up to the government to justify arms sales, not up to activists and parliament to prove that the government has delivered this or that type of dubious weaponry. Parliamentary oversight also helps to pin down the government. In the best-case scenario, as we see in the Netherlands, this encourages the government to assess arms export decisions on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, the 'presumption of refusal of exports' was enacted for arms licences that might pertain to the war in Yemen. More specifically, since the Arab Spring, there have been multiple successes in the Netherlands and Germany: the cancellation of the Leopard tank contract for Indonesia in 2012, numerous refusals of arms licences for Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in the Netherlands since 2015, the cancellation of the Leopard tank contract for Saudi Arabia in Germany in 2013 and a dramatic drop in exports of small arms to third countries in 2019. In the United Kingdom, the Court of Appeal's 2019 ruling that arms sales must be suspended – while more recent and fragile – is undoubtedly a breakthrough.
But there too parliamentary oversight is merely a tool. In Germany, the institutional arrangement is rather basic. There is no dedicated parliamentary committee or extensive access to information, but this does not prevent the government from being put under real pressure. This is mainly due to the considerable efforts made by DIE LINKE (The Left) and Green MPs who regularly monitor the issue: around 50 well-documented questions are raised each year. Democratic oversight cannot be imposed by decree. It is first and foremost something that is built up day by day through the commitment and involvement of everyone.
Let's take a look at Germany and France. In Germany we recently heard that we can't deny arms exports because France is involved in producing and exporting and we are not in a position to take decisions for France. What do you make of such arguments and what do you think a German audience should know about arms export oversight in France?
This is the classic argument used by governments so that they don't have to change anything. Our study shows that restricting the arms trade does not end up isolating a country diplomatically, and instead creates a 'virtuous circle' that brings other countries along with it. France has been sidelined from Europe as the European trend is to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia. On the other hand, when the German government yields to civil society and suspends contracts, it is simply applying European law, specifically the Common Position on Arms Export Controls. We mustn't look at the issue the wrong way round: it is definitely France that is acting illegally. 50% of our arms exports go to countries in the Middle East and our weapons fuel many conflict zones: Yemen, Nigeria, Egypt, Mozambique, Libya, etc. France relies on a combination of the nuclear threat, arms exports and the militarised activities of multinationals like Total – which use disorder in places like Yemen and Mozambique to its advantage – to extend its influence in the world. Is this really the model that Germans want for their future?
Obviously, cooperation in arms production between France and Germany is stronger than in the past and creates interdependencies. Germany would be hard-pressed to do without negotiating with France. However, the many exceptions and loopholes in the German embargo enacted in response to the war in Yemen outstrip the requirements imposed by France. When the Lürssen patrol boats, hit by the embargo on Saudi Arabia, were redirected to Egypt, this had nothing to do with France. The same goes for the absence of restrictions on arms sold to the United Arab Emirates, which partly owns German shipyards, including Lürssen. The coalition government therefore has more leeway than it suggests. French inertia is also used to justify the continuation of arms exports.
In your shadow report, you criticise the recent report by two French MPs from the République en Marche and Republican parties on parliamentary oversight over French arms exports. What is problematic about this report and what changes are necessary in France?
It is important to reiterate that this report was born out of the mobilisation of NGOs and activists in response to the involvement of French arms in the war in Yemen in 2018. Subsequently, Sébastien Nadot, an MP in the majority party in parliament, filed a request for a commission of inquiry that brought together around 30 of his fellow MPs from the majority party. In France, it was quite unprecedented to see a challenge from the President's party. The government hastened to block the initiative, and parliament gave the go-ahead for the creation of the fact-finding mission, whose rapporteurs were Jacques Maire and Michèle Tabarot, and who were also the authors of the report in question. It is no exaggeration to say that the purpose of the fact-finding mission was to put down the parliamentary revolt. The contents of the report are a prisoner of the context in which the document was drafted: justification for arms exports, including to countries at war like Iraq, criticisms of Germany, which was accused of 'not playing along' and rather insipid proposals, such as the creation of a parliamentary delegation responsible for discussing secret arms sales. In terms of transparency, however, the recommendations are sound. Like the previous report published in 2000, it is likely to be buried due to a lack of will by the executive branch and insufficient parliamentary support. We are of course campaigning for the establishment of a permanent parliamentary committee and greater transparency, but, as explained above, institutional changes cannot solve everything. Unlike DIE LINKE and the Greens in Germany, no French political party has made an explicit restriction on arms sales part of its agenda. If we were being provocative, we could retort: so what's the point of parliamentary oversight then? To sell more arms? The proposals for institutional change and the economic indignation associated with the issue are important for moving forward, but we also need to think more holistically about the divergence between us and some other EU countries and the reasons why we are so involved in the current crises. France's influence in the world seems to have a very substantial place in our collective imagination. This idea lends legitimacy to our military might and arms sales. Opposing arms sales means comprehensively challenging the very rationale of power: nuclear weapons, colonialism, what happened in Germany after the fall of Nazism and in the United Kingdom, where universities offer courses in post-colonial studies. In France, we find it very difficult to talk about our colonial past and about our present as well (domination, via our military and arms sales, of French interests in certain parts of the world). This is why we are working on Total's role in Yemen and Mozambique, among other things.
The example of arms manufacturer Rheinmetall shows how multinational corporations circumvent export restrictions by shifting production to other countries, in Rheinmetall's case to Sardinia and South Africa. What do you suggest should be done at European level to counter this?
First of all, subsidiaries are created in return for our arms sales. We often transfer all or some of the technology to the purchasing country, allowing it to develop its own arms industry. To do this, we create subsidiaries abroad. This explains the current military power of Turkey, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, China and South Africa, countries where we have sent a lot of exports over the past 50 years. The other reason is economic: you can develop the electronics in your own country – or just draw up the plans – and then have the final hardware assembled in the recipient country via joint ventures. That way you kill two birds with one stone: your prices are more competitive and you circumvent your own laws. Germany has been implicated in this, but France too has numerous joint ventures in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. And South Africa, which we armed during the apartheid era, is in turn creating joint ventures in the United Ara Emirates. So it's a general problem. Given this arms race, we think it would be beneficial to prevent each country from trying to gain advantage within a strictly power-based context. Why not move towards harmonising export rules at European Union level? For the time being, the EU level is used to strengthen industrial cooperation in the arms industry via the European Defence Fund, which finances the design process for new arms. This funding is a way for Europe to develop a common military policy, but one which is decided without our participation, because defence falls outside MEPs' remit. We must fight to achieve European Parliament oversight over European military projects and arms exports because these days, only the European arms industry is making great strides. While decision-making frameworks are gradually shifting from individual Member States to the EU or to the transnational level (through industrial cooperation agreements or subsidiaries and joint ventures, etc.), we need to set aside our instinct to take action at national level and should mobilise together across borders.
The interview was conducted by Axel Ruppert, project manager at the Brussels Office of Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung