The Arab Spring did not lead to a more restrictive or harmonized EU arms export policy

The EU and its Member States have strongly condemned the violent repression of the mass protests during different uprisings in the Arab World. Protesting civilians were repressed with the help of arms made in Europe and this led to public debate. However, the vocal condemnation has not led to more restrictive arms export policies of EU Member States: the value of EU arms exports to the Arab world doubled since 2007, with a total value of more than €10 billion in 2012. The events of the Arab Spring did not strengthen the harmonization between the Member States’ policies either. This undermines the development of a credible EU Common Foreign and Security Policy, concludes a new report of the Flemish Peace Institute that was presented on 24 March 2014.

Most arms exports to the Arab world are deemed unproblematic

Despite political unrest in the region, EU Member States have considered the lion’s share of arms export licences for the Middle East since 2011 as unproblematic. The value of EU arms exports to the region doubled between 2007 and 2012. In 2012, EU Member States approved a total of approximately 4,500 export licences with a total value of more than €10 billion. Although the percentage of licences denied for Arab states increased in 2011-2012 compared to previous years, this proportion remains low (an average of 2-3%). Member States have also responded to the Arab Spring by suspending or freezing arms export licences, but these measures were mainly of a temporary nature and the countries hit by these measures were often not important customers.

A few EU embargoes: the only common and restrictive approach

Within the wider context of the Arab Spring, EU arms embargoes on Libya and Syria - imposed by the European Council - were the only cases in which the Member States formally developed a common framework and implemented identical restrictive measures. The strength of arms embargoes lies in their legally binding character. Yet arms embargoes also have their weaknesses, since consensus in the EU Council is needed to establish them (and was absent e.g. on Egypt), or to prolong or adapt existing arms embargoes (which proved problematic on Syria).

National interests prevail

An analysis of how France, Belgium, Germany and the Netherlands responded to the Arab Spring shows that EU Member States responded differently. There is little sign of a common EU policy. The report suggests that national arms export policies are fundamentally shaped by national factors, rather than by an agenda of European harmonization. One clear example is that some Member States denied transit licences for arms exports to Arab states that were previously permitted by other Member States.

Credibility of EU is at stake

The events of the Arab Spring have not led to fundamentally more restrictive arms export policies or to a significant deepening of harmonization of arms export control policies of the EU Member States”, says Nils Duquet, author of the report. “While the Member States clearly learned some important lessons for their arms export policies from the Gulf War of 1990-1991, the events of the Arab Spring have not led to a similar wake-up call.” Instead of strengthening the impetus for more harmonized and restrictive arms export policies, the current developments seem to be heading into the opposite direction. The Flemish Peace Institute concludes that greater caution is needed when considering arms exports to countries in the Arab region if the EU does not want to lose its credibility, and put at risk the legitimacy of its Common Foreign and Security Policy in general and its human rights policy in particular.

Dowload the report ‘Business as usual?’ here