The Weapons Dilemma Germany Takes a Critical Look at Arms Exports

One of the main policy goals of Germany's current coalition government had been imposing stricter controls on arms imports. But now it's becoming apparent that the status quo will likely remain in place – at least for now.
German Economics Minister Robert Habeck next to a model of a rocket launcher at a Berlin trade fair in 2022: a commitment that feels like it comes from a completely different time.

German Economics Minister Robert Habeck next to a model of a rocket launcher at a Berlin trade fair in 2022: a commitment that feels like it comes from a completely different time.


Florian Boillot / SZ Photo

When some 40 security experts gathered in late November at the behest of German State Secretary for Economic Affairs Sven Giegold, some were rather surprised at the list of invitees: Human rights activists were part of the group, alongside scientists and arms lobbyists. Unlike previous occasions, representatives of civil society and industrial executives were both asked to attend.

They were asked to formulate their expectations for the "national arms export law," with which the government in Berlin – a coalition made up of the center-left Social Democrats (SPD), the Greens and the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) – intends to establish clear criteria for German arms exports. Whether a gun opponent or a gun manufacturer, each was granted two minutes of speaking time. Nothing should give the appearance of partiality.

Many representatives of the peace movement had hoped to find an ally in the fight against arms exports in Giegold – a member of the Green Party and a deeply pious Christian – but their hopes were dashed. "We're not making the law for a Green Party convention, but rather for the federal coalition government," Giegold is quoted as having said by those involved at the round table meeting.

Arms Exports Worth Billions of Euros

Germany is one of the world's largest arms sellers and the current government has thus far done nothing to change that. To date, the Chancellor Olaf Scholz's cabinet has approved arms exports worth a total of 8.4 billion euros, the second-highest amount since the birth of the Federal Republic of Germany after World War II. The only year in which that figure was higher was in 2021, when, in the final year of Chancellor Angela Merkel's tenure, the government approved 9.4 billion euros in weapons sales abroad.

Although Ukraine, in the wake of the Russian invasion, accounted for 2.2 billion euros in deliveries last year, that still leaves 6.2 billion euros for the rest of the world. By comparison, Merkel's previous government in 2020 remained below the current governments arms exports when deliveries to Ukraine are excluded – with arms exports worth 5.8 billion euros.

Germany's largest customers are close partners such as the Netherlands, the United States and the United Kingdom. European Union, NATO and NATO-equivalent countries accounted for 5.1 billion euros. However, valuable customers also include Qatar (50 million euros), Oman (49 million), Egypt (28 million), Saudi Arabia (17 million) and the United Arab Emirates (9 million), according to a response from the Economy Ministry to a written query from Sevim Dağdelen, a member of parliament with the Left Party. In other words, countries that aren't exactly known to be champions of democracy and human rights.

It is true that their overall share of the total value of authorized weapons exports has declined. But the current government has shown no interest in dropping these customers. According to information obtained by DER SPIEGEL, further planned exports to Gulf states have already been submitted for approval.

Arms Front and Center

Scholz's government had actually set out to pursue a "restrictive arms export policy," as stated in its coalition agreement. As part of that intent, the SPD, Greens and FDP envisioned the implementation of the Arms Export Control Act, including binding, transparent rules for export decisions with a focus on respect for human rights and international law. The initiative for the act came from the Greens, with the party’s platform saying that it wants "to employ more restrictive export controls to put an end to European arms exports to dictators, regimes that disregard human rights and war zones."

It’s a commitment that feels like it comes from a completely different era. Russia's attack on Ukraine has brought rearmament out of the shadows and into the center of German political policy. What seemed objectionable yesterday is desirable today. Indeed, events are putting the values-driven foreign policy the Greens had set out to pursue to the test.

The Arms Export Control Act is perhaps most illustrative of this dilemma. A draft of the law had been set to be completed by the end of 2022, but it has since been delayed. The initial points being worked out by the parties suggest that the expectations of many who had hoped for greater morality in the arms business are likely to be disappointed. What had been a prestige project of Green foreign and economic policy could end up toothless – and may provide yet another example of how the party's ideals are often challenged by real political developments.

Green politicians Annalena Baerbock and Sven Giegold: There are moments "when our values and norms clash."

Green politicians Annalena Baerbock and Sven Giegold: There are moments "when our values and norms clash."

Foto: Tobias Schwarz / AFP

At the same time, the Greens are the in driver’s seat when it comes to that policy. Arms exports are approved by the Economy Ministry of Economics Minister Robert Habeck, a senior member of the Green Party. His ministry is also responsible for writing the draft of the Arms Export Control Act, with the participation of the Foreign Ministry, which is headed by Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, also a key member of the Green Party. Habeck and Baerbock are in positions where they could put an end to Germany's past weapons export policies, but they are shying away doing so.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine has invalidated the German principle of not supplying weapons to war zones. Chancellor Scholz, who heads up the SPD, admitted as much in a speech where he vowed to modernize the German armed forces, but no other party has moved faster to abandon the coalition government's original planned policy than the Greens, a party that has its roots in the German peace movement. If it had been up to the Greens, German battle tanks and infantry fighting vehicles would have been sent to Ukraine long ago. On Thursday, the government in Berlin finally announced that it would supply Marder battle tanks to Ukraine.

Gradually, however, concern is growing within the party that, under the effort to reverse Germany's previously cautious defense policy, arms exports to crisis regions are being legitimized more generally – and that arms deals with problematic partners could also serve to forge alliances against Russia. Baerbock herself fueled this concern with a memorable appearance at the Green Party convention in October.

Horrified Green Party Delegates

There are moments, Baerbock told the 800 gathered delegates, "when our values and norms clash." DER SPIEGEL had previously revealed that the German government had approved arms exports to Saudi Arabia despite an arms embargo imposed in response to the monarchy's involvement in the war in Yemen and its role in the murder of journalist and government critic Jamal Khashoggi.

Baerbock justified the decision by noting that the armaments delivered – materials for equipping and arming Tornado and Eurofighter combat aircraft – were part of a joint European project. The contracts had been signed by the previous government. After difficult deliberations, she and Economy Minister Habeck had concluded "that we want and need more European armaments cooperation."

The surprising explanation: "Because otherwise the 100 billion will never be enough," Baerbock said, referring to a special fund the government has created to upgrade the Bundeswehr, Germany’s armed forces. "And I don't want us to make any more cuts in the social sector and then have Lisa run out of funds for the children who desperately need them." The reference was to German Family Affairs Minister Lisa Paus, another Green Party cabinet member.

Weapons for dictators to finance basic subsidies for children? Many delegates were aghast, and there was talk of "moral blackmail.” As if she were seeking to soothe the shock, Baerbock also announced the Arms Export Control Act. The key points had been made public two days earlier, surely no coincidence.

A model of a Eurofighter fighter jet at a trade fair in Riyadh in 2018: Fears are growing the weapons deals could be conducted to forge alliances against Russia.

A model of a Eurofighter fighter jet at a trade fair in Riyadh in 2018: Fears are growing the weapons deals could be conducted to forge alliances against Russia.

Foto: Mohammed Almuaalemi / Getty Images

Arms exports are a secretive business, which is why the government rarely has to justify them. But the current government had set out to bring light into the darkness. And it is now being reminded of this by its own people.

"Of course, a federal government is reluctant to write laws that restrict its freedom in decision-making, but that is exactly what I, as a member of parliament, demand of the Arms Export Control Act," says Sara Nanni of the Greens. She argues that it needs to contain clear security policy criteria in terms of which weapons may be supplied where. "The new law must greatly reduce the discretionary authority of this and future governments"

At the Economy Ministry, State Secretary Giegold's staff is currently working on the law. Giegold, 53, is a Protestant, a member of the left wing of his party and an environmentalist, but he's not a pacifist.

"If you follow the comments of State Secretary Giegold, the law falls short of the promise of the coalition agreement," says Arnold Wallraff. The former president of the Federal Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control served as the custodian of German war weapons exports from 2007 to 2017 and now advises churches. In Wallraff's view, the concessions to industry go too far. He accuses Giegold of "pre-emptive restraint."

German Veto Right Could Be Dropped

Arms lobbyists, on the other hand, praise Giegold for his pragmatism, saying they would like to maintain the existing legal framework. Human rights and the rule of law considerations are already a factor in arms export authorizations, but the government has long differentiated based on the types of weapons. It was strict on small arms, which can also be used to suppress regime opponents. But it was generous when it came to battleships and submarines. "Anything that floats is OK," former German Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher of the FDP reportedly said once. In the future, though, the following will apply: Those who violate human rights and international law will usually get nothing. And that could be painful for industry, particularly Germany’s shipyards. But Giegold is making concessions.

Up to now, the German government has been able to veto the export of war equipment manufactured by a European partner but for which Germany supplies components. It is an approach that foreign defense companies have frequently found infuriating – to the point that some have resorted to producing goods without so much as a single screw from Germany. In the industry, such goods are described as being "German-free."

That principle, though, is to be dropped."No German veto power. I am committed to this," reads a letter recently sent by Defense Minister Christine Lambrecht (SPD) to the members of the Bundestag. Decisions on whether war equipment is to be supplied to problematic states will be decided by an EU majority, meaning Germany could be overruled by other countries in the bloc. Giegold speaks of a Europeanization of export control, and he is proud of the concept. But arms critics fear that Germany is giving up its last means of influence.

“No EU state will allow itself to be talked out of its exports."

Christian Mölling, security expert

Brussels has been trying to strengthen the European defense industry for some time. Be it the European Commission, the European Parliament or the member states, all are in favor of harmonizing national export regulations. What is disputed, however, is whether the rules should be equally strict or equally loose. For France, a tightening of export policies along German lines is out of the question. EU Trade Commissioner Thierry Breton has made this clear internally.

Green Party politician Hannah Neumann: Why should the EU agree to the lowest common denominator for dangerous weapons of war?

Green Party politician Hannah Neumann: Why should the EU agree to the lowest common denominator for dangerous weapons of war?

Foto: Dwi Anoraganingrum / Future Image / IMAGO

Hannah Neumann, a German member of the European Parliament with the Green Party, on the other hand, is urging Berlin to stand firm. "In all policy areas, the principle is: In areas that are not the EU’s responsibility, the lowest common denominator or a compromise that is agreed upon applies," Neumann says. She says she doesn't understand why the EU should agree to the most far-reaching, lax interpretation for dangerous weapons of war, of all things. She hopes that the German standard will become the European standard.

Christian Mölling, head of the Security and Defense Program at the German Council on Foreign Relations, a Berlin-based think tank, believes this is unrealistic. "Greater European cooperation is possible, but not on purely German terms,” he says. "No EU state will allow outside influence over its exports," he says. The business-friendly FDP holds a similar view. "We want greater European cooperation that also supplies certain third countries with arms," says Hagen Reinhold, the point man for arms exports on the Economic Affairs Committee of the German federal parliament.

Either way, the federal government's rules have only limited influence on the defense market. Executives at many companies recognized long ago that, no matter how strict, there are ways of getting around export controls. That's what confidential documents from Hensoldt AG, a publicly traded manufacturer of defense electronics, seem to suggest. Technology from Hensoldt is installed in many European defense projects, including the Eurofighter fighter jet. The German government holds a 25.1-percent stake in the company.

A bazooka made by Dynamit Nobel Defence GmbH at the Hensoldt booth at a defense trade fair

A bazooka made by Dynamit Nobel Defence GmbH at the Hensoldt booth at a defense trade fair

Foto: Nicolas Armer / dpa

In the autumn, DER SPIEGEL reported on how Hensoldt was able to supply Saudi Arabia despite an export ban. The Bavarian company uses its foreign subsidiaries in Britain and South Africa for that purpose. It’s a practice the German government could move to curb in its new law. But according to people involved, it doesn't appear that it will.

International agreements offer another loophole. In 2019, France and Germany signed an "Agreement on Export Controls in the Arms Sector." As part of that agreement, Germany undertook not to impede the export of French armaments if German components make up only a minor part of the overall project. Since then, German arms producers have been able to legally supply countries like Saudi Arabia as part of French programs.

"Enlargement of the Export Toolbox"

The Hensoldt documents show how lobbyists for the company lobbied for Spain to join the agreement, which it did in September 2021. A September 2022 presentation by Hensoldt's lobbying department reveals how Hensoldt plans to use this expanded arms agreement to offer its products to authoritarian countries. DER SPIEGEL has seen the document.

The contract offers an "increase in the size of the export toolbox," the September document states. All the better that Italy is apparently also set to join the agreement. Loopholes are apparently slowly turning into floodgates.

When contacted for comment, Hensoldt denied using the international agreement as a loophole for allowing exports to countries like Saudi Arabia. The company is "complying with applicable international agreements, laws and regulations," a spokesman said.

The German government is acting as though it is powerless. It isn’t possible to intervene "in operational business decisions," says the Economy Ministry. At the same time, the government has entered into a confidential security agreement with Hensoldt, under which the federal government must approve the company's "sensitive activities."

The Hensoldt presentation listed "strategic export issues," including arms deliveries to mostly authoritarian countries in the Gulf region. Hensoldt components were to be supplied to the United Arab Emirates for the Cobra artillery detection system. Hensoldt wrote that it expected the Economics Ministry to approve the deal.

Other strategic projects include radars for warships to be supplied to Saudi Arabia, in this case by the United States. In this instance, the presentation stated, the German government was considering the request. In addition, there were apparently already planned deliveries of radar equipment to Kuwait and Egypt. According to the presentation, a preliminary inquiry for the delivery to Kuwait with a total volume of 150 to 200 million euros was approved shortly before Merkel’s government left office in November 2021. The presentation also states that the exports to Egypt had also been approved on Merkel’s watch. Now, apparently, a second round is on the horizon. Hensoldt said that an approval was expected at the beginning of the year.

But it is unclear whether the current government has already decided on the requests. Officials at Hensoldt said they would not comment on the "aforementioned projects and approval processes, some of which are ongoing," nor would the Economy Ministry.

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