Arms controls: the EP’s fight to convince Member State to respect their own commitments

The EP has tried to convince Member States to respect their own commitments on arms exports. With little success so far.


The European Parliament has been very vocal on arms export control throughout the outgoing legislative term. The main aim was to remind Member States of a commitment they made with the EU Council’s 2008 Common Position on Arms Export. Continuing the fight must be a priority for the new incoming parliament. And it’s also a way to show that the EU stands for values.

On the morning of 20 May this year, dock workers in Genoa refused to load weapons onto the Bahri Yanbu, a Saudi cargo, after a confidential report revealed that these would be used for the war in Yemen. This episode is not isolated and is a symptom of growing public attention on arms exports in Europe. 

The EU Council’s 2008 Common Position on Arms Export – the only existing binding regional mechanism of arms export control – states eight precise criteria to grant export licenses, among which the fact that weapons produced in an EU Member State shall not be exported to regimes that might use them for internal repression or to wage acts of aggression towards another country, as well as the respect of international agreements on disarmament, international law and international humanitarian law.

Since then, though, very little has been done to enforce it, and with huge differences between EU Member States. The war in Yemen has become a testing field for these rules, with the European Parliament repeatedly calling for an embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia that only a few Member States are respecting: Germany, Spain and the Netherlands in particular. 

The war in Yemen has become a testing field for the EU’s arms export rules. The EP has repeatedly called for an embargo on arms sales to Saudi Arabia, but only a few Member States respect this embargo.

In the European Parliament, as Socialists and Democrats, we made it one of the main points of our security and defence strategy, but we have been forced to negotiate and compromise with groups that are more inclined to protect businesses, with less attention towards the EU’s fundamental values.

Over the years, we have managed to pass through several resolutions regarding arms, arms exports, European defence, and linking every Resolution on specific countries or regions to the issue. In a recent report, we managed to insert a reference to the Common Position, with the message that EU Member States must refrain from exporting weapons to countries in the MENA region when there is a reasonable doubt on the misuse of such weapons, under the principle that human rights must always prevail on business considerations. 

Currently there is momentum on European common defence. In the last couple of years, we laid the basis of a strengthened military cooperation among Member States, as well as of a truly European defence industry. Among the provisions, we recently approved the establishment of the European Defence Fund, which will support the European defence industry by mobilising an estimated 13 billion euros during the next Multiannual Financial Framework.

Supporting EU defence companies is important, but it can and must go hand in hand with the respect of the basic criteria set out in the Common Position. There is no contradiction between the two. What is more, it must go hand in hand with a stronger EU foreign policy, which is consistently weakened by the incoherent behaviour of Member States.

The protest in Genoa is only the last act of what has been the elephant in the room for years. Indeed, stronger enforcement would be required to make Member States compliant with the Common Position, taking into account the fact that these issues remain a matter of national competence. In particular, we need an effective sanctions mechanism, more transparency on the export licences and lists of goods exported, including increased parliamentary scrutiny and information, more protection of whistleblowers, a more active role of EU delegations in assisting Member States with licences, and more efficient reporting of the situation of arms exports across the EU.

In November 2018, we put forward some proposals already in our EP Resolution on the matter. The legislative term starting soon will be fundamental for the direction we want to give our European Union. The fight is political, and it is not over. 

The European elections showed that the massive nationalist wave did not occur; instead we have a composite Parliament, with the rise of new movements and mixed results for the traditional progressives. This result will only make it more necessary to address the issue. Personally, I see a clear message coming from our citizens: we want a new European Union, but Europe must stand for its values, at home as well as abroad.

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