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3rd Jul 2020

'Killer robot' projects eligible for EU defence fund

  • Lethal autonomous weapons are already in use, depending on the definition. The Phalanx CIWS is a radar-guided cannon. (Photo: U.S. Pacific Fleet)

The EU will allow companies developing so-called 'lethal autonomous weapons' to apply for EU funding, negotiators from the EU's three institutions decided on Tuesday (22 May) evening.

The European Parliament, the European Commission, and the Council of the EU – representing national governments – struck a deal on the specifics of a €500m defence investment programme.

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The parliament had originally wanted to bar controversial new weapon types from receiving EU subsidies, but gave up on that in Tuesday's talks in order to strike a compromise, according to two sources who were in the room.

An amendment to the bill, which said weapons of mass destruction, cluster munitions, anti-personnel landmines, and fully autonomous weapons should not be eligible for funding, was scrapped at the request of the council.

Instead, the proposed regulation setting up the €500m fund would merely say that projects would not be eligible if their end product was "prohibited by international law".

In exchange, the council offered the parliament to include a 'recital' - the legal term for one of the paragraphs setting out the reasons behind the law - which said that "the eligibility of actions … should also be subject to developments in international law".

This could in theory mean that 'killer robots' could be banned from the European Defence Industrial Development Programme once agreement is found at international level – but that is unlikely to happen any time soon.

A recital is also legally less powerful than an article, as MEPs originally proposed.

The parliament's main negotiator, French centre-right MEP Francoise Grossetete hailed the deal, in a press statement sent on Wednesday.

"The all-European defence technological and industrial base, in particular our SMEs and mid-caps, will benefit from this programme in order to strengthen our strategic autonomy. Excellence and innovation will be the main drivers," she said.

The commission also welcomed the provisional deal – which will still need a write-off by the full plenary of the parliament and EU diplomats representing the member states.

"With this agreement, we are building EU's strategic autonomy and boosting the competitiveness of the EU defence industry," said industry commissioner Elzbieta Bienkowska.

The Polish commissioner herself participated in Tuesday's talks, which lasted for seven hours, according one contact.

Bulgaria's minister of defence Krasimir Karakachanov also took part, as his country currently holds the rotating EU presidency.

"This new step in our security and defence cooperation reflects the importance in today's world of doing more as Europeans for our own security," said Karakachanov.

The programme will run for two years, but is planned to be succeeded by a seven-year defence fund.

One contentious point of negotiations was how to pay for the fund.

The member states wanted the budget to be redirected from other, previously agreed EU programmes, while the parliament wanted to use the unallocated margin of the EU budget – which would otherwise flow back to member states if unused.

In the end, the two sides decided that 60 percent of the fund should be come from redirecting money, and 40 percent from the unallocated margin.

According to a document seen by EUobserver, the breakdown is as follows: €116.1m will be redirected from the Connected Europe Facility; €104.1m from satellite navigation programme Galileo; €63.9m from the EU's contribution to the global experiment for fusion energy; €12m from earth observation programme Copernicus; and finally €3.9m from the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service.

'Three country' clause

One 'win' for the parliament was that a consortium vying for a project needs to contain at least three companies from three member states.

The original requirement was that they came from two member states, which could lead to the EU's two biggest member states Germany and France reaping all the benefits of the fund.

German Green MEP Reinhard Buetikofer was thoroughly disappointed by the outcome.

"It is shameful and irresponsible that parliament and council could not even uphold basic norms and values as non-investment in banned and inhumane weapons such as cluster munitions, incendiary or autonomous weapons," Buetikofer told EUobserver in an emailed statement.

"The European Defence Fund has been set on the wrong track from day one and it will not provide the EU and its citizens with more security. The scope, objectives and procedures of the now agreed EDIDP regulation are so vague, ambiguous, non-transparent that only corporate interests of the oversized European defence industry will profit," he added.

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