Towards convergence in European arms export policies: How to overcome the Franco-German stalemate?

As evidenced by a growing number of comments, such as the ones by the Centre for European Reform ( and the Group for Research and Information on Peace and Security (link:, the latest initiatives in European defence reopen discussions for European harmonisation in the field of arms export controls.

While a Common Position 2008/944/CFSP on arms exports was adopted in 2008, listing eight criteria that European Union (EU) member-states have to take into account when assessing export licenses, the creation of the European Defence Fund (EDF) in particular may lead to a step further. Indeed, the EDF will partly fund from the EU’s budget joint armament programmes by three or more member states. This could open the right for the Commission and/or the European Parliament to have a say in where such weapon systems should be exported.

For the time being, arms export control decisions remain in the hands of member states. And for any progress to be made at the EU level, the two remaining defence powerhouses after the UK leaves the block, France and Germany, would need to agree on a common approach. This is all the more important that the two countries are currently engaged in joint armament projects, including a new Main Battle Tank and a new Future Combat Air System – the latter also involving Spain- and that without agreement on arms exports the entire projects could be in jeopardy. Such projects are crucial for the future of Europe’s defence industry.

The divergence in arms export policies between France and Germany has become more acute in the aftermath of the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen ( and in the wake of the brutal assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Of course, the differences between a relatively more liberal French arms export policy and a relatively more restrictive German policy, go further back, to the post-World War 2 era. But the existing agreement, the Schmidt-Debré letter signed by German defence minister Helmut Schmidt in 1971 and French defence minister Michel Debré in 1972, is now outdated in the French perspective. This is due to Germany’s position on arms deals involving joint programmes with third countries and its slow delivery of licences for supplying German sub-components for French programmes. As a result, some French defence firms started to replace German sub-components so as to by-bass Germany’s more restrictive stance.

As European defence cooperation becomes increasingly important in an era of global power competition, with a more introvert United States, a more aggressive Russia and a rising China, it is essential for France and Germany to find common ground on this issue.

The disparities rest not so much in bureaucratic and institutional processes that guide arms export control licensing, but more in the political debates in which they are embedded. Indeed, the export control process is as rigorous in both countries, which should contribute to mutual trust. First of all, both France and Germany subscribe to similar international agreements, such as the EU Common Position mentioned earlier, but also in the European inter-governmental framework the 1998 Letter of Intent and the related 2000 Farnborough Agreement. Internationally, both France and Germany ratified the Arms Trade Treaty, as well as a number of other commitments such as the Missile Technology Control Regime or the Wassenaar Arrangement, among others. Administratively, the licensing process starts at an inter-ministerial level for routine cases, but the most sensitive applications are elevated to the highest political decision-making level when necessary. As a result, for those controversial cases, where technicians and analysts from various ministries cannot agree to grant or deny a licence, the Prime Minister or President calls the shot in France, and the Federal Security Council presided by the Chancellor decides in Germany.

In addition, arms exports also have a similar economic importance for both France and Germany, who are home to some of the world’s largest defence-industrial firms, some of which heavily rely on external market for their economic viability.

The divergences come into play, however, when we consider arms export controls from a political point of view. In France, there is a strong consensus on the arms export policy, underpinned by decades of “Gaullist” foreign policy, whereby France has a role to play in the world, and arms sales are one of the tools to influence and build relationships with partners around the world. Arms exports are also seen as a crucial means to financially support its strategic autonomy. This consensus has not been questioned by the new administration under President Emmanuel Macron. Such consensus does not appear to exist in the Germany political landscape. For instance, the issue of arms exports has become in recent years a feature of disagreement between parties during electoral campaigns. The SPD in particular has taken a stronger position on this question, and has included restrictive arms export controls in the CDU/CSU-SPD coalition agreements in 2013 and in 2018. The latter states that, under the new coalition government, Germany would stop issuing licenses to states involved in the war in Yemen.

Besides, the French lower chamber, the Assemblée Nationale, has no involvement in the export control process, except for a relatively superficial annual report that it receives from the ministry of Armed Forces. The German Bundestag also is not directly involved, but receives more information from the government. In particular, the Federal Security Council has been forced by a 2011 legal decision to inform the Bundestag after its licensing decisions. However, in December 2018, the Assemblée Nationale launched a ‘mission d’information’ on arms export controls in France, following a growing debate due to the sale of arms to Saudi Arabia and the UAE involved in the war in Yemen. The results of this committee have not yet been published but they could signal that a move by the French Assembly towards more oversight.

Furthermore, Germany is more transparent with regards to the publication of the political norms that guide its arms export control decisions. This is not the case in France, who considers the political criteria for licensing decisions as classified information.

Overall, while the German view that France does not have “serious” export-controls processes is not realistic, France does indeed trail behind Germany with regards to the degree of political and ethical scrutiny in its licensing process. However, the war in Yemen has precipitated heightened parliamentary concern, and civil society mobilisation in France. This would appear as a good window of opportunity to reach a consensus on arms exports between France and Germany.

For convergence to progress, Germany would need political reassurances from France, while France would require Germany to become more reliable. With the 1970s Schmidt–Debré letter effectively obsolete, a new arrangement should logically be attached to the bilateral Aachen/Aix-la-Chapelle Treaty of January 2019. France could in particular send some strong political signals towards Germany, which would help the German government “sell” an agreement to its own constituencies. Options could range from adopting a temporary arms embargo against Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, like German authorities did; allowing more parliamentary involvement in the arms export-control decisions; or more easily just increasing the transparency of its own decision-making processes. This would possibly reassure Germany MPs and interested public on the rigorousness of French procedures. Finally, more discussions and cooperation on how to approach sensitive cases such as the Gulf countries could underpin consensus on arms trade issues, both at the bureaucratic and political levels.

France should be all the more encouraged in this direction that it now appears increasingly isolated in its insistence to sell to Gulf states: after Germany, Nordic countries, but also Belgium and the Netherlands decided to limit their exports to such countries, now the UK has also been forced by a legal decision to reconsider its licenses to states involved in the Yemen war. Therefore, France now appears to be the one blocking steps towards consensus, not the other way around. France and Germany have long been calling for more European defence cooperation. Such a position clearly requires Paris and Berlin to accept more compromises and mutual interdependence on arms-export controls.


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