defense industry German arms policy under fire

Turkey is using German-made tanks in its offensive in northern Syria, heightening pressure on Berlin to tighten its rules for selling military goods abroad.
Turkish soldiers with German tanks in Syria. Germany wishes they wouldn't be there.

A political row over weapons exports has erupted in Germany after news footage showed Turkish forces using German-made Leopard 2 tanks in an offensive in northern Syria aimed at crushing US-backed Kurdish YPG fighters. The controversy is compounded by a Turkish request for its Leopard tanks to be upgraded by Rheinmetall, a German engineering group, to protect them from improvised explosive devices and anti-tank projectiles.

Foreign minister Sigmar Gabrial on Monday complained to his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu that he was worried about the humanitarian consequences of an escalation in Syria. But critics in Germany said he should have spoken up earlier.

The German government is reviewing Turkey’s request fully aware that it could torpedo a tentative rapprochement after years of tension. The Turkish controversy is just the latest hiccup in the country’s arms policies. As part of ongoing negotiations for a new coalition government, Berlin has halted shipments to countries such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia that are entangled in the war in Yemen. But that could affect both German workers as well as supply agreements with allied arms makers abroad – the country is the world’s fifth-biggest arms exporter with a 5.6 percent share of the market.

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The UK, for example, sells Eurofighter jets to Saudi Arabia. German-made components account for 30 percent of the planes. If Germany were to block the sale of Eurofighters, the UK could have a problem. And France sells Rafale fighter jets containing German parts to the United Arab Emirates. If these projects were stopped, companies could sue the German government for damages, but that’s exactly what opposition politicians want.

“The new export figures, just like the attack by Turkey on the Kurds in northern Syria, show that the long overdue stop of weapons deals with the countries of the war alliance in Yemen alone can’t guarantee a responsible arms export policy,” said Agnieszka Brugger of the opposition Greens. New figures from the German economics ministry seen by Handelsblatt show that the German government approved arms exports totaling €6.24 billion in 2017, down €610 million from 2016 but well above the average of €4.24 billion approved in the years 2001 through 2013.

Experience shows that German governments have in the past failed to honor pledges to rein in arms exports. When he became economics minister in 2013, Mr. Gabriel promised to take a more restrictive stance on sales. That worked in 2014, when exports amounted to just €4 billion. But they jumped to €7.86 billion in 2015 and have been above €6 billion each year since then. “Year after year, the German government has had no scruples about breaking its own rules again and again,” said Ms. Brugger. “That’s why we urgently need a binding law to control arms exports with strict rules and tougher human rights criteria.”

Year after year, the German government has had no scruples about breaking its own rules again and again Agnieszka Brugger, Green Party parliamentarian

In 2017, the share of arms exports going to countries outside the EU and NATO rose to 61 percent from 53.7 percent, even though Mr. Gabriel had said he was committed to reducing that figure. Algeria was the biggest purchaser of German arms in 2017. The Federal Security Council, a committee of government ministers that decides on arms exports, last year approved exports worth €1.36 billion to the North African country, followed by Egypt with €0.71 billion and Lithuania with €0.49 billion. Saudi Arabia came in sixth with orders worth €0.25 billion. Turkey isn’t among the top 15 buyers of German weapons.

The figures are volatile and can be skewed by individual contracts. In a statement, the economics ministry pointed out that around one-third of the entire €3.67 billion worth of arms exports to non-EU and non-NATO members consisted of one single ship for the Algerian navy that is used for coastal protection. It’s part of a major order worth €2.2 billion consisting of two frigates and six helicopters.

The ministry insisted that Germany’s policy on arms exports remained “tight-meshed and restrictive” and said the export figures didn’t just include weapons but also mine clearance equipment to protect civilians as well as vehicles and equipment for UN peacekeeping missions. Even though it added that Germany was the only country that conducts on-site checks of where its defense gear goes, it’s only conducted two such reviews since launching the system 18 months ago.

Also, Germany has succeeded in reducing its exports of small arms to less than €46.9 million in 2017 from €135 million in 2013. The government said sales to non-EU and non-NATO member states fell from the previous year and that the biggest importer of German small arms last year was France.

Martin Greive is a correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin. Donata Riedel covers economic policy for Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected].