EU arms export: why MEPs are calling for stricter controls 


Weapons made in EU are widely exported and some to countries that engage in conflicts which threaten Europe’s own security. MEPs call on EU states to upgrade their rules on arms exports.

An arms race to be controlled


The global trade in major conventional weapons such as missiles, aircrafts, ships or tanks reached their highest volume for any five-year period since the end of the Cold War in 2012-2016. MEPs are alarmed that this global arms race fuels military solutions to conflicts rather than diplomatic ones.


This also affects Europe as a number of such conflicts take place in its immediate neighbourhood.

“We’re not just talking about peace or Europe’s image, we are talking about the lives of our citizens,“ said Bodil Valero, a Swedish member of the Greens/EFA group who was responsible for drafting the Parliaments recommendations, in a debate in plenary on 12 September.


Defence industries in the EU produce and sell anything from light weapons to ammunition, submarines and radar and radio systems. In several cases EU weapons sold to authoritarian regimes were known to have been used in civil wars and ended up with terrorists groups. The EU is the second biggest arms exporter, but at the same time EU countries have set for themselves the only legally binding region-wide arrangement on conventional arms exports.


“The criteria are rather good already, but the problem is that the countries do not fulfil them,” said Valero on why the Parliament approved a resolution that calls for an upgrade of EU arms exports controls and the possibility to sanction member states that do not comply with the minimum requirements.


Not all MEPs agree, however, with the need to add criteria to the Council Common position or with the creation of a supervisory body as proposed in the Parliament’s resolution. “Pakistan, North Korea, China is where we should focus our attention. None of these countries are signatories to the UN arms trade treaty while all EU member states are,” said Geoffrey van Orden, a UK member of the ECR group during the plenary debate.


EU arms export in numbers


Five EU countries feature among the top 10 arms exporters: France, Germany, the UK, Spain and Italy.  In 2015 the EU countries taken together were the world’s second largest arms supplier with 26% of global exports of major conventional weapons. Behind the USA with 33% and before Russia with 23%. Remarkably, only about 15% of EU arms export is for the internal market. This illustrates how much the prosperity of the EU’s defence industries is tied to exports outside the EU. The Middle East was by far the most important destination for EU arms exports in 2015. “How can it be that 40% of our exports go the Middle East, which is a powder keg?,” said Valero.


Impose arms embargo on Saudi Arabia


In the resolution, the Parliament calls on the EU’s foreign policy chief Federia Mogherini to impose an EU arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. Speaking in plenary on 12 September, Valero - the MEP who drafted the resolution, said: “There is a clear link between the sales of weapons to Saudi Arabia, the fact that Saudi Arabia is financing mosques in Europe and also radicalising people in these mosques. But it is not just a question of Saudi Arabia and the financing of radical mosques in Europe that is the issue here, it is also a question of the fact that Saudi Arabia is providing weapons to Al Qaida, the Nusra Front, to Daesh. They get access to these weapons and they are terrorist groups. This is something we can never accept."

Criteria EU countries have to consider when deciding on arms export licences: 
  • Respect for the international obligations and commitments, particularly sanctions 
  • Respect for human rights and international humanitarian law by the recipient country 
  • Assess the internal situation in the recipient country 
  • Assess risks to regional peace, security and stability 
  • Assess national security of the member states as well of their friends and allies 
  • Assess behaviour of the buyer country towards the international community, including its attitude to terrorism and respect for international law 
  • Assess risk of diversion towards an unauthorised end-user or end-use 
  • Assess compatibility of the arms exports with sustainable development in the recipient country