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'Weapons of War': Germany Considers Loosening Arms Export Controls

"Eurofighter," "Leopard," Submarine Class 214: Germany is the third largest weapons exporter in the world, despite restrictive guidelines. Now the federal government wants to make arms sales abroad even easier to make up for defense budget cuts at home.

Photo Gallery: German Arms for Sale Fotos
REUTERS

It all started with the French. Years ago, the Defense Ministry in Paris presented an official plan promoting arms exports. The German response? Self-imposed limits. Arms exports should be "restrictive," according to the "Federal Arms Exports Guidelines" from the year 2000.

The situation hasn't changed much since. In a recent issue of the financial magazine Wirtschaftswoche, an unnammed head of a German weapons manufacturer complained about the French: "We are the ragamuffins here, and they are the heroes."

That, though, will soon come to an end.

A recent report from the commission studying the structure of the German military, led by Frank-Jürgen Weise, the head of the Federal Labor Agency, states that the German defense industry will "depend more than before on their exports and civilian use of their products." The commission forwarded a recommendation to Defense Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg (CSU) for the "alignment of national arms exports guidelines to European standards."

"Export, Export, Export"

Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, a member of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), is alarmed. For 11 years, she was Germany's development minister and sat on the so-called "Federal Security Council," a group which decided on what weapons exports to allow, and to where. Wieczorek-Zeul told SPIEGEL ONLINE, that she fears "those who are now talking about aligning with EU partners only want to find a way around Germany's restrictive arms exports laws." For her, the coalition agreement between Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats (CDU) and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) only has one goal in its chapter on arms, and that is: "Export, Export, Export."

The coalition agreement reads: "We are committed to current arms export regulations and will continue to advocate the harmonization of arms export directives within the EU. We actively support fair competition in Europe." The idea is to remove bureacratic red tape and speed up administrative procedures.

Elke Hoff, the defense policy spokeswoman for the FDP fraction in German parliament, finds many similarities between the recommendations of the Weise commission and the proposals included in the German government's coalition agreement. They are so sensible, she said, that they could have "almost come directly out of our coalition agreement."

Hoff can't comprehend why her opponents are so agitated. "If we weren't interested in selling German armaments to friendly nations, then we could shut down our defense industry right away, " she says. "But we want to hold on to the jobs." In all, about 80,000 German workers are employed in the defense industry, and another 10,000 jobs are tied to subcontractors.

Trade unions in Germany are estimating that Defense Minister Guttenberg seeks to cut the German military's procurement budget by some €9 billion in coming years. Last Wednesday, in the Bavarian town of Manching, more than 2,000 employees of the defense company Cassidian (a division of the EADS Corporation) demonstrated against proposed cuts to the defense budget. A representative from the union IG Metall warned that the cuts could result in 10,000 lost jobs in Germany.

Are arms exports to provide a way out of this dilemma?

Florian Hahn, a defense expert from the Christian Social Union (CSU) -- the Bavarian sister party to Merkel's Christian Democrats -- says, "because the domestic market will shrink due to the military reforms, we must actively support arms exports. Other nations are ahead of us on this."

In India, for example, he says much too little is being done to advertise the "Eurofighter," the European designed-and-built fighter plane. The Indians are currently interested in buying 126 fighter jets, a contract worth more than €10 billion. The European plane manufacturer EADS is competing with the Americans, Russians, French and Swedish for the contract. Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle offered assurances during his visit to India in October that Germany has the "best and most reliable technology."

Loosening the Strict Guidelines

The guidelines drawn up under Merkel's predecessor Chancellor Gerhard Schröder, an SPD politician, stipulate that when it comes to weapons of war, "employment policy should not play a decisive role."

Hahn now considers it "possible to loosen the German arms exports guidelines." Until now, it's been difficult for industry to adjust to the procedures of the Federal Security Council, Hahn said, adding: "One doesn't even know when the meetings take place. I hope to see quicker and more transparent decision making."

The weapons will not be displeased. Many of the proposals by Merkel's government resemble demands made by the Federation of the German Security and Defense Industries (BDSV) for "support of exports." The federation's wish list includes:

  • The establishment of a "cross-departmental organizational element" within the government to speed up the process of coordination.
  • The easing of "access to export markets through backed international agreements."
  • The "acceleration of export approval procedures from the weapons of war control law," in order to have quicker entry into international competition.

Armaments for Export

Even with strict export regulations, Germany is the third largest weapons exporter in the world. In the past, the subject of controversial weapons sales, such as the sale of 36 reconnaissance tanks to Saudi Arabia in 1991, has come up again and again.

The Germans are only behind the US and Russia on the list of weapons exporters, and are ahead of the British and French, who are envied by German manufacturers. According to data from the respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), Germany had 11 percent of the world market between 2005 and 2009. The countries owning the most weapons manufactured in Germany are Turkey (14 percent), Greece (13 percent), and South Africa (12 percent.) In 2008, the German government allowed the export of armaments worth almost €6 billion.

The existing, Schröder-era export guidelines evidently don't present much of an obstacle. SPD expert Wieczorek-Zeul now wants to strengthen them, and is demanding parliamentary transparency on arms exports. She said the parliament should "not just be informed after-the-fact and in convoluted ways about the decisions made on exporting weapons of war." Instead, she argues, the export of those weapons should be disclosed to the Committee on Foreign Affairs.

So far, however, she has had difficulty finding influential support.

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