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The Weapons Dilemma: Germany Takes a Critical Look at Arms Exports

  • January 07, 2023

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.

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