Tuesday 17 July 2012

The Dirty Twenty-Seven: Europe’s involvement in the global arms trade

Between 1932 and 1934 the world’s leaders came together in the city of Geneva to attend the most significant conference of all time: the Disarmament Conference. The American President Roosevelt summarised the aims of the conference: “If all nations will agree wholly to eliminate from possession and use the weapons which make possible a successful attack, defences automatically will become impregnable and the frontiers and independence of every nation will become secure.” After tough negotiations, and after Hitler was assassinated by Julius Leber, the conference became a monumental success: it was decided to ban offensive weapons! Robert Oppenheimer spontaneously decided that he would abandon nuclear physics to work on hydrogen fuel cells instead, and the new leaders of Germany were so euphoric that they convinced France to commonly found the Pan-European Federation.
The world's leaders meet in Geneva

This is of course not how history turned out; but imagine a world without arms – war would be obsolete, and a huge amount of human suffering would never occur. A general ban of the global arms trade would be a good start on the way towards this vision.

But let’s get back to reality. In 2011, 2.2 trillion US-dollars were used globally for military expenditures. The military budgets of the UK, France and Germany are among the world’s top-ten, and as a whole the 27 Member States of the European Union spent $281 billion on their militaries, amounting to 1.5% of the EU’s GDP. In comparison, about 5% were spent on education.

What is even more shocking is that the crisis-struck Member State Greece has the 19th largest military budget on the planet. It is only slightly smaller than that of Israel or Spain. Greece spends 4.3% of its GDP on the military, compared with 4.1% on education. Proportionally no EU Member State spends as much on its military, and globally there are only a handful of states that spend more. I don’t know what is more threatening, invasion from its giant neighbours to the north (Albania, Macedonia and Bulgaria), or occupation by its NATO-ally Turkey. While Europe is forcing absurd austerity measures on the Greek population, which have lead unemployment and poverty to skyrocket, the German government has sold Greece military equipment worth €403 million in 2010, and Greece continues buying Leopard-tanks and submarines (okay, sometimes they don’t work) from German weapons manufacturers. Motives of ‘solidarity’ in the Greek ‘rescue package’ are completely dismantled in the face of this ridiculous policy. It is crazy to assume that any EU Member State is facing a serious military threat, and the Greek policy of cutting pensions while buying tanks is bordering the criminal.

The EU’s involvement in the global arms trade is no less significant. Whether it is Afghanistan, Iraq or Libya – the West fights wars against the same countries that it sold weapons to ten years earlier. Between 2005 and 2009 European arms exports to Libya for instance had more than quadrupled, including materials such as military planes and tear gas. The planes that Gadhafi used to bomb his own population were produced in France and Russia. Similarly, civil wars in Sudan and Congo are fought with weapons produced and sold by the West, putting further pressure on the moral credibility of European governments. At the same time, Europe is celebrating the production of weapons like the Eurofighter as success stories of European integration, and the integration of Europe’s military industry is seen as positive – what could possibly be more cynical?

I don’t understand why states cannot simply agree not to sell weapons anymore, but it seems that the profit generated by the fact that the arms industry is one of the largest industries in the planet outweighs the ethical problems resulting from it. The accumulation of capital is more important than the potential prevention of war in the polico-economic system we live in. Many people however, are not even aware of this condition, and I am thus hopeful that mere awareness will cause us to question this system, and to elect politicians that will seize to contribute to the dirtiest business on the planet – the international arms trade.

Harald Köpping

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