Tuesday

18th May 2021

MEPs delay debate about 'killer robots'

  • A minority of MEPs is worried of so-called killer robots being developed with EU money (Photo: Alyse & Remi)

The European Parliament has postponed a debate on autonomous weapons systems, known colloquially as 'killer robots' – as it gets ready to vote on a €500m fund for military development.

A debate about the issue was included in an earlier version of the agenda for this week's plenary session in Strasbourg – the last one before a crucial United Nations meeting.

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  • A previous version of this week's plenary agenda featured a debate on autonomous weapons systems (Photo: Peter Teffer)

However, it was taken off to make place for a debate on road safety and cleaner transport.

"It will probably come back in September with more luck," said a spokesman for the parliament's largest political group, the European People's Party (EPP).

A spokesman for the far-right Europe of Nations and Freedoms said that mostly left-leaning MEPs wanted to discuss it.

"Our group has other priorities this session," he noted.

A spokesman for far-left GUE/NGL told EUobserver it was the second time a debate on killer robots was postponed.

At the opening of the plenary on Monday, the Greens tried to force the issue onto the agenda by requesting a vote to change the agenda.

However, the request to discuss autonomous weapons this week was rejected with 126 MEPs in favour and 158 against.

"The technical development of killer robots is advancing extremely fast," Reinhard Buetikofer, German Green MEP, told EUobserver in a written statement.

"It is the responsibility of parliaments to discuss and enforce international regulation that can help preventing the emergence of a brave new world of fully autonomous armaments that could be employed by every dictator or every unscrupulous warlord to kill human beings by the thousands on the basis of algorithms," he added.

"International regulation has to be agreed before the development gets completely out of hand," said the MEP.

EU-funded killer robots?

The matter of autonomous weapons systems is all the more relevant this week, because the parliament is voting on a €500m EU fund that will be available for military consortia in 2019 and 2020.

Originally, a majority of the parliament had adopted an amendment to the fund's legal basis, saying that certain categories of military development should be excluded from the fund's eligibility.

Among those categories the MEPs wanted to bar from eligibility were weapons of mass destruction, cluster munitions and anti-personnel landmines, but also "fully autonomous weapons that enable strikes to be carried out without human control over the targeting and engagement decisions".

However, in negotiations with the European Commission and the Council of the EU – which represents national government – the amendment was scrapped.

Instead, the negotiators settled on including only a 'recital' – a paragraph in the legislation that sets out the reasons for a law.

It said merely that the eligibility of projects for products "that are specifically designed to carry out lethal strikes without any human control over the engagement decisions" should be "subject to developments in international law".

Left-wing German MEP Sabine Loesing said in an emailed statement that allowing the financing of lethal autonomous weapons systems was "scandalous".

She noted that the MEP that negotiated on behalf of the parliament, centre-right French MEP Francoise Grossetete (EPP) "disregarded the EP's negotiating mandate".

"We strictly reject the development, proliferation and promotion of such autonomous weapons and will therefore vote against the EDIDP," said Loesing, referring to the acronym of the fund's official name, the European Defence Industrial Development Programme.

This website has asked Grossetete to explain why she gave up the parliament's amendment on eligibility, but received no response.

On Monday (2 July), the political deal was discussed in Strasbourg.

Grossetete did not mention why the eligibility amendment was scrapped, but she also was not asked about it.

Neither Green nor GUE members referred to autonomous weapons systems in their speeches. Instead, most of the left-leaning MEPs rejected the use of EU funds for military ends altogether.

The delay of the debate came after a group of scientists as well as citizens' groups called on MEPs to reject the funding programme, and in particular the possibility for autonomous weapons to be funded.

It also is not on the agenda for the upcoming Nato summit in Brussels, later this month, a Nato official told this website.

At the end of August, experts will meet in Geneva to discuss lethal autonomous weapons systems, but an international ban – requested by MEPs in 2014 – is still far off.

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