22nd Mar 2018

MEPs may bar killer drones from EU research cash

  • 'More research into drones could actually reduce the number of civilian casualties during bombardments', said one MEP, Anneleen Van Bossuyt (Photo: EADS)

Members of the European Parliament are considering whether EU taxpayer money can be used to fund the development of weapons of mass destruction, drones, and robot weapons.

Two parliament committees will vote on Tuesday (23 January) on the draft bill, proposed by the European Commission in June 2017.

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  • The European Defence Industrial Development Programme will have €500m available for 'defence products', the European Commission proposed (Photo: NATO)

The proposed regulation would establish a €500m European Defence Industrial Development Programme, although the final figure can still be changed in negotiations between the EU institutions.

The commission did not propose clear criteria on which programmes would be eligible for EU funding, referring merely to design and prototyping of 'defence products'. The proposed regulation does not even contain the word 'weapon'.

According to some MEPs, there are some weapon categories that should not receive EU taxpayer money.

Some said that weapons of mass destruction should not be among eligible products, and nor should drones and fully autonomous weapons – often referred to informally as killer robots.

Several amendments have been tabled, adding an annex of non-eligible products to the regulation.

Banned weapons, and munitions and weapons not compliant with international humanitarian law, like cluster bombs or chemical weapons, are also proposed to be on the blacklist.

However, Anneleen Van Bossuyt is not convinced of the need for a specific list of non-eligible products, she told EUobserver in an interview in Strasbourg last week.

The Belgian centre-right MEP of the mildly eurosceptic European Conservatives and Reformists group is chairwoman of the parliament's internal market committee.

The text she drafted will be put to a committee vote on Tuesday, and then feed into the debate in the parliament's lead committee on the file, the industry committee.

Following publication of her draft opinion, she negotiated on compromise amendments with other groups.

One compromise amendment, supported by groups that command a majority, would introduce the condition that only projects "in accordance with the principles of the United Nations Charter" may be funded, while another would state they would have to be "in compliance with international law".

However, there is no international consensus on the use of armed drones and autonomous weapons.

'Humans make more mistakes'

"I do not think that drones should be excluded," said Van Bossuyt.

"I think that drones, and more research into drones, could actually reduce the number of civilian casualties during bombardments," she added.

Van Bossuyt also said that for the same reason, she did not want to exclude in advance the eligibility of autonomous systems.

"My personal conviction is that humans still make more mistakes [than machines]," she added.

Her centre-left colleague from Romania, Ioan Mircea Pascu, however, disagreed.

Pascu has also written a draft text with amendments, but for the parliament's committee on foreign affairs – the other of two texts that will be put to a vote on Tuesday.

He suggested that the defence fund should not be used to develop "fully autonomous weapons that enable strikes to be carried out without human intervention".

Pascu, a former Romanian defence minister, referred to a resolution adopted by the parliament's plenary in February 2014.

MEPs at the time called on the commission and national governments to "ban the development, production and use of fully autonomous weapons which enable strikes to be carried out without human intervention".

Swedish Green MEP Bodil Valero introduced an amendment to also bar the production of armed unmanned aerial vehicles – or drones – from the fund, as long as the EU's member states have not put in place legal rules on the military use of drones.

Pascu, as well as some other MEPs, also proposed that small arms and light weapons should be excluded if these were developed mainly for export purposes.

Whether certain weapons categories will be banned from the defence fund, will depend on the final outcome of the legislative journey, which still has some steps to go.

Following the establishment of its position, the parliament will have to negotiate with the Council of the EU, where member states meet, to determine what the programme will finally look like.

The council has already agreed its position in December – an indication that member states are keen to move forward with the idea. The council has not proposed to exclude weapon categories, although it may still be convinced if a broad majority of MEPs support that notion.

The fund is part of a larger initiative which sees more EU cooperation on defence, including the set-up of a European medical command.

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