Up in arms German ban hobbles joint military exports to Saudi Arabia, vexing allies

Berlin’s unilateral embargo frustrates France and Britain and endangers future cooperation on defense programs.
Quelle: Bloomberg
High-flying UK export – with German parts.
(Source: Bloomberg)

Germany’s unilateral arms embargo against Saudi Arabia is straining relations with both Britain and France because it blocks exports of joint projects from jet fighters to armored police cars.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel slapped the embargo on Saudi Arabia in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Kashoggi without consulting her European allies. The go-it-alone action blocks weapons exports to the desert nation, even if Germany only delivers parts for a finished product.

It raises questions in Paris and London about how reliable Germany is as a partner, if it is willing to adopt such policies without consultation or consideration about the impact on their economies or companies.

Britain, for instance, has a contract valued at several billion euros to deliver 48 Eurofighters to Saudi Arabia, but about one-third of the plane’s components come from Germany, so it is affected by the ban.

British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt has sought an exemption from the ban, but his German counterpart, Heiko Maas, turned him down.

Germany was reacting not only to the Kashoggi murder but also to Saudi involvement in the Yemen conflict. Britain is also opposed to the Saudi intervention and Hunt stressed the importance of coordination between the allies in order to maintain their leverage with the Middle Eastern kingdom.

Friction in German coalition

Pressure is growing within Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union not to renew the ban, due to expire March 9. But this in turn is creating tension with their Social Democratic coalition partner. Party chief Andrea Nahles was annoyed that Merkel announced at last weekend’s Munich Security Conference that coordination with allies is necessary.

Christian Democrats argue, however, that Germany must be ready for compromise. “There is no way to impose Germany’s extraordinarily strict arms export policies one for one,” said Jürgen Hardt, a foreign policy expert for the party.

Johann Wadephul, deputy floor leader for the Christian Democrats in parliament, says the Yemen peace process is making progress and the Saudis have promised a trial for the Kashoggi killing. “We have to be realistic in our expectations,” he said.

Even some Social Democratic deputies are concerned about Germany’s need to make concessions to allies. “If we want to have partners, that works only on the basis of mutual recognition of sovereign choices,” said Fritz Felgentreu, defense policy spokesman for the party. Just as no one can prescribe who Germany can export to, Berlin can’t forbid another country’s exports, he said.

Wrench in the works

French ambassador Anne-Marie Descôtes said a decision made so quickly and unilaterally makes it difficult for partners. France cooperates closely with Saudi Arabia on combating terrorism and cannot simply say from one day to the next it won’t sell any arms.

Würth, a German supplier of parts for armored police cars that France has contracted to deliver to Saudi Arabia, says it will sue the government for damages. Even companies that agree with the German policy say there has to be some compensation for their good faith engagement they have undertaken. Such damages could run as high as €2 billion ($2.3 billion), according to industry estimates.

The dispute could have a long-term effect on relations between the European countries. “If Germany insists on bringing its export controls to bear on allies,” said Hans-Christoph Atzpodien, head of the arms industry association BDSV, “future joint projects could be endangered.”

Tom Enders, outgoing head of Airbus, which participates in several joint military projects, warned last week against an escalation of the dispute. The French-German-Spanish venture might have to figure out how to produce “German-free” products if Berlin persists in thinking only it has a responsible arms export policy, he said.

He expressed hope that the current frustration of the allies would make the German government come to terms with what a realistic national security policy requires.

Moritz Koch is a Berlin correspondent for Handelsblatt. Torsten Riecke is international correspondent and Donata Riedel also reports from Berlin. Darrell Delamaide adapted this article into English for Handelsblatt Today. To contact the authors: [email protected], [email protected], and [email protected]