EU Boosts Arms Manufacturers

BRUSSELS, Apr 6, 2010 (IPS, by David Cronin) - Arms traders are to be given a central role in formulating a new European Union (EU) blueprint for stimulating weapons production, it has been confirmed.

The EU's executive arm, the European Commission, has said it will draw up an action plan for how small and medium-sized companies that manufacture military goods or their components can be strengthened.

Dagmar Metzger, an EU official overseeing support for the weapons industry, says that contact between civil servants in Brussels and arms traders will be increased. The AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD), an umbrella group for arms-makers, is to be intimately involved in deciding the plan's contents.

Metzger would not comment on the ethical and human rights issues surrounding the arms trade. "We make defence industrial policy," she told IPS. "We are not talking about core military business. We are not supporting military exports, the production of weapons, arms, whatever. We are only talking about industrial policy, nothing else."

She nonetheless acknowledged that EU officials are examining the possibility of establishing an Internet-based service, through which small-scale arms companies could become aware of new calls for tender to supply armed forces across the Union. "The action plan shouldn't be just a piece of paper," she added. "It has to be filled with life."

Six states account for an estimated 87 percent of all weapons production in the EU: France, Britain, Germany, Italy, Sweden and Spain. Traditionally, the governments of these countries have been wary of developing weapons jointly with outsiders, while the military-industrial sector has been exempt from EU rules on competition applying to other economic activities. Last year, though, the Commission proposed two laws requiring that most military contracts published in one EU country should be open to firms in another and that the procedures covering the movement of weapons within the Union should be simplified.

According to observers, most of the EU's policy decisions on armaments in recent years are almost identical to recommendations made by the arms lobby. In 2004, the arms trade received a considerable boost when the European Defence Agency (EDA) was established with the explicit objective of assisting EU governments to build up their arsenals. At that time, the three largest arms companies this side of the Atlantic - BAE, EADS and Thales - issued a joint statement predicting that the agency would be a "vital tool" in raising military expenditure.

Between them, the firms involved had supplied the weapons that fuelled some of the bloodiest conflicts of the past 50 years. BAE's precursor British Aerospace, for example, made the Hawk jets that Indonesia's former military dictatorship used in attacks on civilians in East Timor, where one-third of the island's 600,000-strong population was wiped out between 1975 and its eventual independence in 1999.

The idea of a web service that would drum up business for smaller weapons- makers - with less than 250 staff - follows on from the 'electronic bulletin board' that the EDA runs for major firms. By mid-March this year, this database had published details of almost 480 contract opportunities. Some 290 contracts with a combined value of over 4 billion euros (5.4 billion dollars) have been awarded following their publication by the agency.

Tomas Baum, director of the Flemish Peace Institute, which conducts research on the global arms trade, said that the European Commission is eager to encourage arms production by small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), rather than leaving such production to the usual corporate giants.

"The Commission is very smart at playing the game," he said. "There has been a very big resistance by (EU) member states to liberalising the internal market (for military goods). Now the Commission is using SMEs to again attack the hegemony of big industry in this area."

Another item on the wish list of arms companies is that they should enjoy greater access to the EU's scientific research grants, which total 53 billion euros for the 2007-13 period. Since the Sep. 11 2001 atrocities, the Commission has rewritten the rules covering its multi-annual programmes for research to enable the funding of security projects of a nominally civilian nature such as those covering the emergency response to acts of large-scale violence. The possibility of widening the scope of the programme to include hardcore military research is being considered, EU officials have admitted.

Israel, the main foreign partner of the EU's research programme, has been a key beneficiary of the decision to extend the remit to "security". Israeli firms and universities, including those that have developed weapons and other technology used in the occupied Palestinian territories, have taken part in 12 of the 58 "security research" projects financed by the EU to date.

Frank Slijper from the Dutch Campaign Against the Arms Trade said that it would be logical for the Commission to recommend that purely military research should be financed directly from the EU's budget. "The Commission and industry says time and again that there is no real boundary between civilian and military," he added. "The two areas are so mixed."

Slijper lamented that the growing EU support for the arms industry is not being subject to proper democratic scrutiny. "Brussels in general is very unreceptive to people who are critical of their views," he said. "They want to bolster their projects and they don't like people who start asking difficult questions about the ethical aspects of these projects. This is an area of the EU's work that is happening outside the public view. People in Brussels prefer to keep it that way." (END)

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