France blocking plan for EU code on arms exports
France is continuing to block a new EU code of conduct on arms exports until member states give the green light to start selling weapons to China, despite MEPs and the 2006 Finnish EU presidency's efforts to revive the project.
The new legally-binding code - drafted in June 2005 - is designed to replace an existing voluntary code dating back to 1998, adding fresh clauses on control of arms brokers and shipment of weapons via third countries to tackle changes in the modern arms business.
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A huge majority of MEPs on Wednesday (17 January) supported a call by Spanish green deputy Raul Romeva to pull the code out of the deep freeze, following a similar appeal by the then Finnish EU presidency at a lunch of EU foreign ministers in Brussels in December.
But France - Europe's biggest arms exporter - says the code can only go ahead if the EU agrees to review an arms embargo on China, which was imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and remains in force until Beijing takes steps toward EU human rights norms.
"Things have changed a lot since Tiananmen Square and China is now one of the most visited countries by EU politicians. We do not consider China to be in the same group as other states that have arms embargoes such as Burma or in Central Asia," a French diplomat said.
"We need to have a coherent policy on China and on arms. We have to put our relations in compliance with the strategic level of partnership that we want to have with China," he added, with some three other unnamed EU states falling in behind the French position.
Finnish diplomats and MEPs see the French stance as classic EU political horse-trading however, saying that there is no logical linkage between agreeing a general set of principles and the particular case of Beijing.
"It's a purely political link - most people don't see the connection," a Finnish official said. "This is an important issue: we need to reinforce our rules if the EU is going to play a leading role in pushing for an international agreement at UN level."
'Narrow commercial interests'
"It is unacceptable that a handful of member states...can use narrow commercial interests to block EU arms export rules," Mr Romeva stated, adding that EU arms or arms components currently turn up in conflict hot-spots such as Sierra Leone, Sudan and Somalia.
One problem is the flow of cheap, small arms from some new EU states such as Romania and Bulgaria or EU-hopeful states such as Serbia, with western manufacturers in Germany or Austria making high-end guns which are too expensive for most buyers in Africa.
"This code could be valuable for some of the new member states," the head of the UK's Defence Manufacturers Association, major general Alan Sharman, said. "It could help level the playing field in Europe with some countries that are rather less scrupulous [than the UK]."
The EU's top diplomat Javier Solana on Wednesday said the new code "would be an important step forward if in the end it can be achieved," but there seems to be little pressure in the near future for France to back down on its China link.
Mr Romeva will probably not revisit the topic until 2008. Finland will not hold the EU chair until 2020 and the German EU presidency did not put the issue in its list of 2007 priorities, with defence minister Franz Josef Jung talking vaguely about "non-proliferation" when asked on the code by EUobserver.
"I don't see any interest for Germany to do something about this today," an EU official said, with any EU decisions on the arms industry requiring consensus by all 27 members in a sensitive sector where EU colleagues don't like to tread on each other's toes.