Europe is at war against an imaginary enemy
08-09-2015 -

The issue of the respect of migrants’ human rights at the borders of the European Union is usually addressed from a humanitarian angle (guilty of negligence to basic migrant rights) or a political one (the question of migratory flux management and distribution), the subject is rarely connected to the European arms market.

“Europe is at war against an imaginary enemy” - this is Frontexit’s campaign slogan regarding the respect of migrants’ human rights at the borders of the European Union. Usually addressed from a humanitarian angle (guilty of negligence to basic migrant rights) or a political one (the question of migratory flux management and distribution), the subject is rarely connected to the European arms market. And yet…

Brussels is the European capital and second largest city after Washington in terms of its current numbers of lobbyists who represent the interests of different industries such as cigarette manufacturing, finance... and arms. Their mission? To do everything in their power to influence current and future EU policies. And companies such as Thales Group, BAE Systems and Finmeccanica, considered to be the jewels of the European arms industry, are making efforts. A bit of background information:

  • Thales Group, first of all, is a company which stemmed from France’s partial privatisation of the arms industry and is very active in the domain of lobbying in Brussels. Its turnover for 2013 was €14.2 billion. Thales Group, in collaboration with the Spanish company Aerovision, introduced its new surveillance system for coastal and marine borders in 2012 - a drone called FULMAR which was specifically introduced and tested during a three day demonstration for FRONTEX (Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union). Thales Group’s press release said the following “The surveillance and control of borders are essential to guarantee the internal security of a nation. With the increase in risks and threats (clandestine immigration, drug trafficking, terrorist threats, etc.), governments are demanding higher levels of security for their borders.”
  • BAE Systems is the biggest arms manufacturer in the UK and Europe, and the second biggest in the world, with 95% (€30 billion) of its turnover coming from selling weapons. In 2010 BAE Systems received €2.3 million contract to develop a “Serious Crime and Immigration Information Management System (SCIIMS)”.

  • Finmeccanica is the second largest Italian company with a turnover of €14.6 billion . The company, through its branch Selex and with Thales Group, is part of the OPERAMAR project whose aim is to establish relations between the European Union and those employed under the national maritime surveillance. OPERAMAR, along with several other projects, forms the backbone for EUROSUR (European Border Surveillance System). EUROSUR was introduced by the European Commission with the following words: “Our aim with EUROSUR is to avoid illegal border crossing, to reduce the number of immigrants dying at sea and to reinforce the European Union’s internal security by contributing to the prevention of transborder crime”. Finmeccanica signed a contract with Gadaffi’s Libya in 2009 to install a surveillance system which could stop migrants coming to Italy via Libya.

These three companies, plus Airbus Group (formerly EADS) form what is called “the great four” - the four biggest companies in the European arms industry. And from time to time they publicly address the decision-makers; in 2003 the CEOs of Thales Group, BAE Systems and EADS wrote an open letter (which was published in several national European newspapers) to call for the creation of the European Defence Agency. This was created in July 2004 thanks to intense lobbying from the arms industry… and to the tenacious work of the consulted experts in its development. Experts who work for BAE Systems and EADS and whose work has never been made public.

One of the European Defence Agency’s duties is “to establish a global and systematic approach to define the needs of European Security and Defence Policy and to respond to these needs”. In other words, this agency must define the needs of the European Defence Policy while at the same time being under the influence of lobbyists from the same sector! The European Defence Agency is now integrated into the European External Action Service (the European Minister for Foreign Affairs) where the main decisions are made by the Council, that is to say the leaders of the EU member states, and as such by the national governments who are heavily implicated in the arms industry themselves.

The aforementioned projects have benefited from financial aid which has come from FP7, an EU fund which is used to help businesses finance their research in high technology. In 2010 the amount allocated to adopt military surveillance techniques for Europe’s border was estimated to be around €50 million. As public money is not to be used for military-orientated projects, businesses devise programmes with a dual purpose - civil and military - which is allowed. In 2014, the European Space Agency launched the satellite Sentinel (the first in a series of satellites whose launches will be clear in 20 years) for a planet observation mission. The images are readily available to citizens, scientists and businesses...It’s about “better protecting our planet and improving our citizens’ lives”, but “the images from Sentinel will also be crucial in maintaining Europe’s maritime security” (e.g. fishery, drug trafficking, border control). The fight against illegal immigration, by boat, for example, is not the aim of Sentinel’s images, but these images can be used to help national systems to control borders.

In order for funds to be allocated to projects which fulfil the EU’s needs, the European Commission needs to correctly identify the flaws. Affected by a chronic deficit of internal experts, the Commission regularly consults external ones. The Security Advisory Group is composed of 32 people, a third of whom come from the arms industry (Airbus Group, Finmeccanica, Thales Group). This group must indicate the flaws regarding the EU’s security technology…. then these experts will reprise their roles within the weapons industry and work on a project which, after being financed by Horizon 2020, will lead to a finished product (drone, satellite, armoured personal carrier)... which will be commercialised and benefit the company in question. Just like in the European Defence Agency’s case, there is an obvious conflict of interest.

The group consultants for security have met in Brussels a good twenty times which has resulted in an increase in European border security.

“Europe is at war with an imaginary enemy” then. An enemy, the migrant, systematically described as “illegal” and presented by the arms industry itself as a package of problems that needs resolving in the same way as crime, terrorism or drugs. In order to resolve “this migratory and security problem”, specialists and external experts, who have come directly from the defence industry, are called upon for assistance. They transform this “problem” into a fault that rapidly needs fixing by the EU and produce adequate products which, after being financed by European public money, will go to line the pockets of companies such as Thales Group, Finmeccanica and BAE Systems. The arms industry is not and will never be a business like others - it is able to to produce policies which justifies risking migrants’ lives, an economy which justifies this policy, and weapons which carry it out.

Translation: Lewis Sinkala

Europe and arms exports Q&A
28-05-2015 -

New on this website: In our Q&A we answer some frequently asked questions about the arms trade, en we go over all the facts and figures.

New on this website: In our Q&A we answer some frequently asked questions about the arms trade, en we go over all the facts and figures.

Did you know that the European member states taken as a whole is one of the biggest arms exporters in the world? Where do all these arms end up? Who profits? Who is taking the bullets? Why is there so little control? Is it true that Europe only rarely refuses an export licence? And who still dares to claim that Europe promotes peace?

Read all about it in our Q&A


Peace activists close down office of weapon lobby group
05-05-2015 -

The office of the arms lobby group AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD) was closed down by peace activists. About twenty activists handed over letters of dismissal to the employees and took over the office.

5 May 2014. Peace activists made a stand in the very place where arms are promoted, in the heart of the European quarter in Brussels. Behind the walls of many grey office buildings, arms dealers are lobbying decision-makers. Behind a closed sliding door is the office of the AeroSpace and Defence Industries Association of Europe (ASD).

The activists had previously attended the action training 'I stop the arms trade'. They entered peacefully, took over the office and handed over letters of dismissal to the staff. The reason for the dismissals? Complicity in the killing machine of the arms trade.


The ASD is the voice of the defence industry in Europe. As an umbrella organisation ASD represents the interests of 16 large European businesses and 27 interest groups from 20 countries. The executives of the ASD are also the CEOs of Europe's biggest arms companies, including BAE Systems, Airbus, Finmeccanica, Thales, Rolls Royce, Safran, and Saab. In 2012, the turnover of the European arms industry was 96 billion Euros. Almost 40 billion of this amount was designated for export. The current head of ASD is Mauro Moretti, also the head of Finmeccanica. Via their affiliate AgustaWestland, Finmeccanica supplies fighter helicopters to regimes in Algeria, Libya, and Turkey.

ASD's main mission is to strengthen the European arms industry, by shaping EU legislation and policies as well as by securing public funding opportunities.

Crumbling Control

As the voice of the arms industry, ASD speaks with top politicians and civil servants inside and outside the European institutions. With privileged access to the European institutions, ASD leaves its mark on EU policy. This was evident in 2009 with the creation of the 'Defence package': two European Directives which form one of the key pieces of EU legislation on the arms trade.

Since the 90’s European defence companies have clustered to be able to compete with the American giants. Now a handful of large companies dominate the European defence sector. They see internal controls as an obstacle in the development and trade of arms systems. To simplify collaboration with affiliates in various countries, the arms industry pushed the European Union to deregulate. The Defence Package meets this demand of the arms industry: it simplifies arms trade within the EU. Due to the elimination of control at the borders between member states, weapons can now be exported worldwide via the European country with the least stringent export rules.

The 2009 Directives definitely made European arms export rules less strict. Export control continues to be a national domain, but responsibilities of governments and control mechanisms disappear along with weapons over national borders. The arms industry desperately needs an expansive trade of weapons to conflict regions in order to be profitable. That we are exporting a catalyst for violent conflict is an after-thought. For example, in 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, European arms export licences to the Arab region amounted to nine billion Euros, twice as much as in 2007.

With the Defence Package, the arms industry got the 'harmonisation' that they were looking for. In their annual report, ASD congratulated themselves for their successful lobbying work.

Before they propose new legislation, the European Commission publishes a “green book” to seek comments from interested parties. In this way, ASD could already include their comments before any legislation was actually proposed. During the “collaborative procedure” that followed, ASD established a special committee to co-ordinate the lobbying efforts of the companies that they represent. The goal was to influence the discussions between the European Parliament and the Council. The icing on the cake was the 2008 speech by Ake Svensson, then president of ASD and CEO of Saab, to the European Parliament. Later, ASD monitored local implementations of the Directives and exerted pressure when necessary. In this whole process, ASD had a privileged position, from preliminary discussions, to editing of the policy texts, and even checking the implementation.

Public Money for Weapons

ASD lobbyists also exercise their influence in the domain of public finance of research. The arms industry develops ever more technically advanced weapon systems and subsystems. So they try to feed at the trough of public subsidies for scientific research.

By the letter of the law, European research money may not be used for the development of weapon technology. In practice, within the FP7-Security program, which ran from 2007 to 2013, 1.4 billion Euro was available for “civil security research”. By embellishing their intentions, arms manufacturers managed to help themselves to a sizeable sum out of this research fund.

The current EU research program Horizon 2020, keeps this civil focus. But there's no objections to research of which the results can also be used to increase military capacity. So-called dual-use products can now be financed openly in this way. The arms lobby is grinning like a hyena.

The European Commission is now preparing the next long-term budget, from 2020 to 2027. The arms industry is lobbying to make sure that the EU will then directly and openly fund military research. And with success. The European Commission wants to launch a so-called 'preparatory action' to look into the added value of military research. At the European Council meeting in December 2013, while Vredesactie protested the further militarisation of the EU, the Council decided to set up a “high-level group of personalities” to study this. This “independent advisory council” has recently become active. Seven of seventeen members come straight from ASD's board or working groups. Europe’s biggest arms suppliers are dictating policy again. Unfortunately, it is not new that industry is heavily over-represented in the expert groups designing policy. Critical voices are missing.

It is Time to Stop them

Behind closed doors, arms dealers meet decision-makers, lobby for less export control, and promote their weapons. With a bespoke policy for the benefit of the arms industry, European values have no meaning. Europe is one of the biggest arms exporters on earth. This creates problems. Weapons are never neutral. They are used in bloody, violent conflicts. Weapons have no expiry date. European weapons pop up in conflicts and increase insecurity worldwide.

On May 5th peace activists tried to stop the arms trade. They closed down the ASD office and handed over letters of dismissal to the employees. Business as usual was disturbed until the police intervened. This was only the beginning. Join us and stop the arms trade!


This action is part of the campaign of Vredesactie and Agir pour la Paix. maps the arms trade, exposes arms dealers and intervenes there where it can stop the arms trade.
With our non-violent actions we prevent arms dealers from selling their weaponry or from lobbying for more lenient export regulations. We interfere during arms trade fairs, conferences, in the offices of arms lobby groups and other events related to the arms lobby.

European arms trade, conflict catalyst
19-12-2014 -

Responsibilities of governments and control mechanisms disappear along with weapons over national borders.

Europe is one of the biggest arms traders in the world. Six European companies, BAE Systems, EADS, Cassidian, Finmeccanica, Thales and Rolls Royce are ranked in the 2013 top fifteen biggest arms companies in the world. In 2012 the European arms industry had a turnover of 96 billion euros. Almost 40 billion of this was destined for export. In 2012 the European countries issued 47,868 arms export licences. Only 459 were refused. In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, the value of the European export licences to the Arab region was 9 billion euros, double that of 2007.

A secure Europe in a better world’ is the title of the European security strategy approved by the European Council in December 2003. This document acknowledges that Europe is not separate from the rest of the world and that internal and external security are inextricably linked. It also states that economic relationships can be a source of (violent) conflict and that trade policy can therefore be a powerful instrument for conflict prevention. Conflict prevention, moreover, ‘cannot start too early' and ‘conflicts need political solutions'. These elements could just as easily have come from a text by Vredesactie. Unfortunately practice does not tally with this rhetoric.

In recent years the EU has stimulated the expansion of a European defence industry, an industry which depends on expanding arms trade to conflict regions for profitability. In 2012 forty percent of the European arms trade turnover was destined for export. European weapons turn up all over the world in conflicts and human rights violations. Of the fifty-one regimes labelled ‘authoritarian’ by the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index 2012 forty-three were able to buy weapons in the European Union. This shows that lax European arms export policy can function as a catalyst for conflicts worldwide.

How? Who?

Arms export control is under national authority. It is the national governments which refuse or grant arms export licences, in accordance with their own procedures. In Belgium arms export control is largely left to the individual regions. However, on 8 December 2008 the Common European Position on Arms Exports was approved by the European Council. This harmonizing framework is definitive for the policy of the European Member States and regions and is in fact primarily an exercise in settling for the lowest common denominator.

As in the national arms export policy, there is a serious contradiction in following the lowest common denominator. On the one hand eight criteria are listed for restricting arms exports. On the other hand the aim is a strong arms industry, for which (increased) arms export is of crucial importance.

According to the common position, the restricting criteria must always take priority over the commercial interests of the arms industry. In practice, however, this is not the case. In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, the value of the European export licences to the Arab region was 9 billion euros, double that of 2007. Almost forty percent of Belgian arms exports are directly intended for Arab countries. Almost half of all European firearms and ammunition exported to the Middle East comes from Belgium, according to Flemish newspaper De Standaard in 2013. Saudi Arabia buys so many light weapons from Belgium that ‘Saudi soldiers would need five arms each to carry them all’.

The Walloon government granting a licence for the sale of FN Herstal weapons destined for Gaddafi’s elite troops is a telling example of the way in which commercial interests weigh more heavily than ethical criteria. After various negative recommendations, and even the suspension of a previously granted licence by the Walloon Conseil d’État, in 2010 the Walloon Minister-President Rudy Demotte approved the supply of arms. Although the conflict in Libya had not yet reached its full intensity, human rights violations and the country’s undemocratic policy were well known.

The report‘Vlaamse buitenlandse wapenhandel 2013' (‘Flemish foreign arms trade 2013’), by the Flemish Peace Institute reaches hard conclusions regarding the Flemish arms trade decree to execute the European directive on the arms trade. Around half of previously awarded licences for arms exports have disappeared from the radar. These are for products which are not on the European control list, but which have a military end use. Part of our known arms exports go to other EU countries. On the basis of European legislation, Flanders allows large numbers of ‘general licences’. This means that these transactions for arms within the EU can be conducted without advance proceedings with certified customers. It is only required that this be reported retrospectively, so that parliamentary control is not possible until long after the fact. ‘We only have a partial picture of the transfer of products within the EU,’according to Tomas Baum of the Flemish Peace Institute. There is control in advance of export of arms from Flanders to countries outside the EU, but for this part of the export the end user of the weapons is only known in half of the cases.

In sum, our legislation on arms exports is as leaky as a sieve. Responsibilities of local governments and control mechanisms disappear along with weapons over national borders.

What if?

When arms manufacturers develop new (subsidised) arms technology, they want to earn money with it. They do everything in their power to persuade customers worldwide to buy those new weapons, not caring whether the weapons meet the requirements of a real security threat. If necessary a marketing campaign can ensure that they do. Sometimes it is unclear whether policy decisions follow from military or economic reasoning. Often no attempt is made to conceal the economic reasoning.

Imagine, however, that the EU, as stated in its security strategy, were to use its trade policy as a powerful instrument of conflict prevention. In that case 45,900 arms export licences would be refused, not 459. The defence industry would lose forty percent of its income. No money would be earned from weapons anymore. The pressure from arms dealers on our security policy would wither away.

What if European weapons could no longer be found in Libya, Syria, Israel, Iraq, Mexico, Mali, Nepal?

Let’s make a start:

Europe: one of the world's biggest exporters of arms
19-12-2014 -

Arms export is a lucrative business and is essential for the profitability of the European defence industry.

Nobody could fail to notice: over the last months we have been constantly faced with the horror of war and violence. Everybody's calling out to “do something”. Vredesactie and Agir pour la Paix are calling on you to take action.
Our European arms trade has helped to create uncontrollable monsters. European arms emerge in wars and human rights abuses worldwide. Of the fifty one regimes labelled as ‘authoritarian’ by the Economist Intelligence Unit's Democracy Index 2012, forty three could buy their arms in the European Union. It demonstrates that a lax European arms export policy can function as a catalyst for conflicts worldwide. There's a very good way to 'do something': let's stop the arms trade!

The horror in proper figures:

Five European companies rank in the top fifteen largest arms companies worldwide. BAE Systems, EADS, Finmeccanica, Thales and Safran. In 2012 the European arms industry had an annual turnover of 96 billion euros; of which almost 40 billion was intended for export. Arms export is a lucrative business and is essential for the profitability of the European defence industry. In 2012 European countries issued 47,868 arms export permits and only 459 were refused. These figures give an indication of the minimum export; we suspect that the actual extent is even greater. In 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, European export permits to the Arab region amounted to nine billion euros, twice as much as in 2007.

Saudi Arabia is by far the most important client. Over a period of five years European member states delivered more than ten billion euros worth of arms to the Saudis. Even though the country is a well-known and important supplier to Jihadist terrorist networks in the region. A lot of the arms Saudi Arabia intended for the Syrian opposition fell into the hands of groups like the Islamic State (IS). This proves once again that a lax European arms export policy can be a catalyst for conflicts worldwide.

Lack of legislation

The European Union is described as a civil project in which the wish for peace is a central motive. But this picture is less and less in accordance with reality. Europe is one of the world's  biggest exporters of arms and some of the largest defence companies are established in Europe. Free trade between the different EU countries includes free trade in arms. Arms companies can transport their merchandise freely from one EU country to the other. Moreover, the EU has no enforceable criteria for arms export to countries outside the EU. As a result European arms companies can export worldwide through the European country with the least stringent export rules. One of the great successes accounted for by the lobbyists for the arms industries.

Principles versus economy

In 2008, all EU member states approved the Common European Position on Arms Exports. It was agreed that national governments would take eight criteria into consideration during the issuing of arms export permits. For example, they have to consider potential human rights abuses, the possible fueling of conflicts and the danger that arms would fall into the wrong hands. However, these normative criteria are extremely elastic and unenforceable by a court. Furthermore, the same policy document expressly contains the strengthening of the European arms industry. Principles of freedom and democracy are very easily swept under the carpet by member states when these have the potential to negatively affect the competiveness of their own arms companies.

This attempt at European harmonisation therefore is only ‘soft law’ and is in sharp contrast to the solidly anchored liberalisation of the defence market. After the 1990's waves of mergers in the United States we also saw an expansion and increase of scale in the European defence sector. Internal export controls were increasingly seen as obstacles to the development and trade in weapon systems. The European Union wanted to further liberalise the internal defence market and simplify cooperation across borders. The export controls were therefore drastically weakened rather than strengthened with a European Directive in 2009. When it comes to intra-European trade, defence companies no longer have to apply for separate permits. They only have to self-register their export to make a potential retroactive inspection possible. But only the immediate recipients are included in these registers. Information about the end-users cannot be found there. Authorities therefore lose track of where the military equipment produced in their territory goes.

The mesh is bigger than the net.

Since there is hardly any common policy for European arms export, the door is open to avoidance manoeuvres through the member state with the least stringent rules. National export rules can simply be bypassed through flexible transit possibilities via member states with laxer legislation. So it's not surprising that weapon systems manufactured in Europe surface in clandestine networks and dubious regimes.

In Flanders for example, it is not know who the end-user is for approximately two-thirds of the arms exported. The last known users are mostly foreign companies in another EU member state. Furthermore, an unknown quantity of Flemish technology has a military end-use but no obligation to have a permit because it concerns ‘dual use’ applications. As a result, military products which possibly have a civil application, disappear completely of the radar.

The arms lobby: at home in the European institutions

The initial European peace project is overshadowed by the expansion of an undemocratic military-industrial complex. The unification of the European arms market came into effect through the insistence of a few powerful companies, in the hope of crowding the smaller players out of the market. While drafting the European Directive to achieve this, the Commission consulted with representatives of arms companies such as EADS, BAE Systems, Thales and Finmeccanica. The European umbrella organization of the defence industry (ASD) played an active role in the process and even in amending the Directive.

 In the backrooms in Brussels and elsewhere in Europe, policymakers, arms dealers and lobbyists meet behind closed doors. Though there is no unified vision of a European foreign and security policy, powerful voices that insist on the necessity of a strong and competitive arms industry are having their say in the corridors of the European institutions. Through revolving door politics, advisory groups and lobbying, arms dealers have preferential access to the European decision making process. In this way they make sure their business interests are being taken into account. "What's good for business is good for everybody" is the argumentation. But if there's one sector to which this does not apply, it is most surely the arms industry.

With both regional and European policymakers, there is no political will to strengthen the criteria for arms trade and to make them enforceable in court. But if Europe wants to have any credibility as a peace project, it must urgently start working to remedy this.