Although countries have framed the debate about arms exports to Russia and Iraq in largely economic or national terms, defence policy also plays an important part in these debates, especially when recipient countries are embroiled in conflict.
The European project of creating a common policy of defence has largely been put on hold. In 2014, the EU has made great strides in crafting common external policy. With Catherine Ashton, the EU’s first High Representative in foreign and security affairs (2009-2014), having played an important role in nuclear negotiations with Iran, the Syrian conflict and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, the European Union has had an increasingly visible presence on the global stage.
However, from the supplying of weapons to Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq to defence contracts with Russia seemingly temporarily hampered by EU sanctions, defence debates are decided by national parliaments and governments, not European Union institutions. Defence lobbyists aim to persuade domestic constituents of the benefits of exporting arms, not MPs in Brussels.
Arming the Kurdish peshmerga
Although dreams of nominating a European minister of defence are on the back-burner, recent debates about providing weapons to Iraqi Kurds in their struggle against the Islamic State (IS) provided an interesting test case for the normative and practical arguments behind a common defence policy.
At first glance, member states like France, the United Kingdom and Germany have been unable to agree on the ethical and strategic issues of the transfer. On closer inspection, however, statements by leaders and ministers suggest that member states are well aware of the advantages of a unified European position.
In recent memory, the European Union struggled to find a unified voice on arms transfers to Russia, with the French government taking the unorthodox step of exporting Mistral carriers in a deal signed in 2011, citing the protection of dock worker livelihoods in France.
Recently, while France and the UK decided to provide ‘forceful’ humanitarian aid to Iraqi Kurds, the German government did not, citing a policy against exporting weapons to conflict zones. However, various ministers in Germany, including within Chancellor Merkel’s own party, expressed concern over this principled stance.
International conflict, sanctions and arms embargoes
Germany is one of the world’s top exporters, with arms transfers making up 9% of the volume of its exports last year, while remaining a staunch opponent of sending weapons to conflict zones like northern Iraq.
It is increasingly clear that, aside from a gap between policy and practice in arms transfer issues, the European Union also does not speak with a common voice when it comes to defence policy.
Aside from the EU Common Position on arms transfers, as well as regular consultations between military experts in subcommittees of European Parliament, dreams of nominating a common EU defence minister are currently illusory.
Certain states, however, are keeping the dream alive. A good example of this is countries that take an active position in their presidency of the European Council, as Finland did in 2006. Finland is one of the states that has consistently been an advocate for common defence policy, and even proposed further study of adopting a human security agenda in the EU in 2007.
The Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 in theory went some way towards articulating a unified European policy of defense and security, but is still subject to unanimous legitimation among member states. The increasing gap between national interest and community goals will affect future debates at the European level.