War in Yemen: European divisions on arms-export controls

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By Lucie Béraud-Sudreau

As arms exports to parties in the war in Yemen such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates come under increasing criticism, some European countries are set to fully or partially halt such sales. This creates an increasing divergence in European arms export control policies, at a time when states are looking to deepen defence armament cooperation.

On 9 March 2018, the British government signed a memorandum of intent with Saudi Arabia for the sale of 48 additional Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft, on top of the 72 Riyadh purchased in 2007. Mindful of its defence-industrial ambitions, the Kingdom may have asked for final assembly of the aircraft to take place in its territory. In addition, the deal highlights the significant differences in European states’ export-control policies.

The ongoing negotiation between the United Kingdom and Saudi Arabia occurs at a time when the debate on arms sales to coalition states involved in the war in Yemen is heating up throughout Europe. As noted by the World Peace Foundation and others, an increasing number of European states are debating the appropriateness of arms sales to states participating in the Saudi-led Operation Restoring Hope.

Some of the weapons supplied to these states by European countries in previous years are being used in the conflict; for example, the United Arab Emirates’ French-manufactured Leclerc main battle tanks and AMV armoured personnel carriers built in Poland and sold by Finnish Patria in 2016, as well as  Typhoon aircraft jointly produced by four European nations. Coalition member Jordan has deployed to Yemen F-16 combat aircraft sold by the Netherlands in 2013. The coalition states also use European-made munitions, such as the British Paveway-IV precision guided bomb.

While these examples relate to arms supplied prior to the outbreak of conflict, today’s debate is about ongoing exports and licensing since April 2015. Looking at the major regional powers involved in the war, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the latest available data on arms exports reveals that the main European suppliers to these countries are France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden and the UK (see Figures 1–3 and Table 1).Graphics of European arms exports. Credit: IISSChart of European arms exports. Credit: IISS

However, as these arms sales have become increasingly controversial, decisions to stop exporting to coalition states have divided European states on the issue. In February 2016, the European parliament called for the imposition of an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia, stating that arms sales would be in breach of the European Common Position 2008/944/CFSP on such exports. Shortly after, the Dutch parliament voted in March 2016 to ban arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö, re-elected in January 2018, committed during a campaign debate to ban arms sales to the UAE. In Germany, the coalition agreement between the CDU/CSU and the SPD adopted in February 2018 indicated that, under the new government, Germany would not licence any more arms sales to the coalition states. Norway decided in January 2018 to also suspend arms sales to the UAE and ban new licences. Although Norway is not part of the EU, it has aligned itself with the EU Common Position on arms exports.

Meanwhile, Sweden has not made any specific announcements regarding the war in Yemen, but is due to implement new export-control guidelines on 15 April, including for ‘follow-on deliveries’ (for example, spare parts) for existing contracts. The new guidelines include a stricter human-rights threshold, and focus on the democratic status of the recipient state in the export-licence approval criteria. However, foreign- and defence-policy decisions could override such considerations. Sweden has, in particular, a strong arms-trade relationship with the UAE, to whom it exports the Saab Erieye airborne and early-warning aircraft. The first Saab GlobalEye ISR aircraft for the UAE was rolled out on 23 February.

However, despite the emergence of domestic debate on the issue, other major European arms suppliers are taking an opposing position and are not considering ceasing arms sales to members of the Saudi-led coalition. In the UK, in December 2016, the chairs of the Commons International Development Select Committee and the Committees on Arms Export Controls recommended that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office suspend export licences for arms that could be used in the Yemen war, after the United States considered halting a sale of Raytheon-manufactured precision-guided munitions to Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, the British government refused to stop sales of precision-guided Paveway-IV bombs. NGO Campaign Against Arms Trade attempted legal action against UK arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but in July 2017 the High Court ruled that such sales were lawful, dismissing the claim. The latest negotiations for the sale of additional Typhoon combat aircraft reflect the continuity of the UK’s arms-export policy as regards to Saudi Arabia.

France sits on the same side as Britain in this European divide. There is usually little discussion in France on its arms-export policy, although the war in Yemen did see the start of a public debate. The minister of the armed forces has been questioned several times by the media, and has justified arms sales to Saudi Arabia on the basis that the weapons ‘were not supposed to be used’. Some divergences in the export-control decision-making process appear to have surfaced, but so far France’s arms-export policy regarding Saudi Arabia and the UAE has been marked by continuity, as observed during the presidencies of both François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron. Similarly, in Italy, where Mk82, Mk83 and Mk84 bombs manufactured in Sardinia were used by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, in September 2017 parliament refused to apply an embargo.

These divisions on a key aspect of armaments policy occur at a time when European countries, in particular those within the EU, are trying to deepen their level of cooperation in defence research and development, and in capabilities development and procurement. They also underscore the failure of initiatives over the past two decades to further the harmonisation of European arms-export controls. Indeed, 2018 marks the twentieth anniversary of the Letter of Intent, signed by the six largest arms manufacturers in Europe, and the tenth anniversary of the Common Position on arms exports (which itself succeeded the 1998 Code of Conduct on arms exports). Although differing in scope and intent, these agreements aimed to improve cooperation among European states on arms-export controls. While EU directive 2009/43/EC on intra-European arms transfers might have led to harmonisation in the licensing process, the political aspect of arms exports has not progressed.

Indeed, such divergences on export controls put at risk current efforts to deepen and rationalise the defence-industrial landscape in Europe. This is particularly the case for cooperation between France and Germany. As noted before, while Germany calls for further harmonisation of EU export-control guidelines, France stresses its attachment to national export controls. On the back of current initiatives, such as the European Defence Fund, Permanent Structured Cooperation, the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence and the European Intervention Initiative, there is an opportunity to push these discussions forward. But strong political will would be required to find common ground on this subject.

This analysis originally featured on the IISS Military Balance+, the online database that provides indispensable information and analysis for users in government, the armed forces, the private sector, academia, the media and more. Customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.