German arm’s export policy: suicide or deception?


The facts: German weapons operated in conflict zones

Angela Merkel’s government approved over €25.1 billion ($30.9 billion) worth of weapons sales since taking power in 2014. This puts the current administration, a coalition of Merkel’s centre-right Christian Democrats (CDU) and the centre-left Social Democrats (SPD), above any other German government in modern history. The most drastic change comes in exports to nations outside EU and NATO – Berlin approved €14.48 billion in arms between 2014 and 2017. This marks a 47 percent increase compared to the 2010-2013 cabinet, which was also run by Merkel.


According to the official answer of the German Minister for Economy (in charge of control over arms sales) to Mrs. Agnieszka Brugger, the volume of export licences (Ausfuhrgenehmigungen) has totalled €6.24Bn in 2017 against €6.88Bn in 2016. This slight decrease (minus €610 millions) is over the average of the last decade (€4.24Bn). The share of the customers outside UE and NATO is 61/ % (€3.79Bn).


The top buyer of German arms is Algeria, which imported €1.36 billion in recent years. The top-ten list also features three Middle Eastern nations involved in the Yemen conflict – Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

Export provisional 2017 data (€)

Customers 2017 2016
Total 6.242.315.914 6.847.689.283
UE 1.482.558.028 1.352.687.948
NATO & assimilated countries    965.125.798 1.827.450.333
Third countries (Indonesia, Algeria, KSA,…) 3.794.632.088 3.667.551.002


Customers by rank 2017 2016
1.       Algeria (Meko+kits of vehicules) 1 358 774 362 1 418 102 893
2.       Egypt (submarine+IRIS-T missiles)   708/258.491    399.826.609
3.       Lithuania (88 Boxer)   492.606.168      23.626.312
6. KSA (PBS+Typhoon+msles)   254.457.823   529.705.969
7. UAE (urban warfare centre, kits for vehicules)   213.866.923   169.475.128

The political debate: an ethical hypocrisy?


The data released come at a difficult time for the German government, amid the uproar sparked by photos of German-build tanks deployed by Turkey in Syria. They also cast doubt on the current talks between CDU and SPD on forming the next government, which include a pledge to « harden » the rules on arms exports.

The German government had announced on the 7th February that it would « immediately » stop arms exports to any country participating in the war in Yemen. The move would include Saudi Arabia, a major buyer of German weapons.

The document agreed upon by Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD) in exploratory coalition talks contains a sentence with major ramifications. The sentence, nestled towards the end of the document, could put an end to arms deals worth hundreds millions of Euros. The statement is brief:

« Effective immediately, the government will prohibit arms exports to countries involved in the Yemen conflict. »

Over the past years, German parliamentarians debated extensively whether or not to condone arms exports in conflict regions. A turnaround seems now to have been decided in a surprisingly nonchalant manner.


Effective ‘immediately’: True ?

Or was the turnaround a fait accompli? Speculation has ensued in Berlin over how the sentence should be interpreted. After all, it does state the turnaround is « effective immediately. »

Asked whether this declaration really meant the immediate end to German arms exports, government spokesman Steffen Seibert circumnavigated the issue and flatly stated: « Members of Germany’s caretaker government are bound by what the ministries agree among each other. » It is at least a vague statement…

Seibert also stated: « We make rigorous case-by-case assessments on the basis of Germany’s strict rules governing arms exports. » Shortly after the press conference ended, he took to Twitter to say the following: « To clarify: The government will not approve arms exports that contravene agreements made in the exploratory coalition talks. »


Clarification is certainly needed. Because it’s unclear if the sentence also applies to already approved arms sales to countries involved in the Yemen conflict. And those countries go beyond Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Jordan. A more careful reading of the document agreed by the potential coalition sheds light on the hypocrisy of the ban clause because it is written that all the deals already approved will be pursued:

Well, the longer political figures in Berlin spend trying to analyze the exact meaning of the arms ban clause, the more confused they become…


Germany, no longer a “reliable” partner?


Beyond the current confusion in Berlin surrounding this debate, some consequences are already clear.


First of all, German defence industry can be no longer considered as a “reliable” partner. Any joint-venture in defence will be limited on European or NATO countries, and therefore condemned to a limited and highly-competitive market. Some partners of Germany like Nexter (France) already promote “German free” weapons and vehicles on overseas markets to avoid any negative impact on its customer’s base…Will Kongsberg, the new partner of TKMS on Naval equipments follow the example of Nexter?


Secondly, all the sectors of the German industry will be hit. Traditionally, the Naval domain was put aside of any ban or restriction simply because patrol boats, corvettes or submarines could not harm people in the same way tanks or armored vehicles did. In 2013, the document of the future GroKo stuck to the motto: “alles was schwimmt, geht’s”. Now, the ban clause embraces the Naval domain too. The Saudi contract of Lürssen will be pursued in the name of the respect of any already signed deal, but each new export authorization of patrol boats will be a case for a political row in Berlin, which will provoke in return diplomatic turbulences…


Last but not least, German defence industries will be obliged to pull together and merge or die. We should see Rheinmetall becoming the centre of a national consolidation.

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