BERLIN — There are countries that punch above their weight, and there are countries that punch below their weight. And then, there are countries that aren’t quite sure in which category they want to belong.
Germany appears to be one of them.
When international outrage mounted over the Saudi-led war in Yemen and the killing of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi in fall 2018, Germany was the only major country to halt all arms exports to the kingdom. Human rights advocates praised the decision.
At the time it was seen as a symbolic move, since other countries exported a great deal more arms to Saudi Arabia. But as it turns out, the intertwined nature of European industry meant that the German export ban had a great deal more effect than expected.
Now the debate in Berlin has swung into the opposite direction, as the full repercussions of that exports halt have become apparent. With days to go until the measures are set to expire, Germany’s Security Council, headed by Chancellor Angela Merkel, may partially reverse the weapons halt as early as this week, according to a report by German news association RND.
Such a move would be more an acknowledgment of the fact that the halt worked the way human rights advocates had hoped, rather than an admission of the measures’ failure. Whereas analysts had previously dismissed the measures as being of little relevance given that France, Britain and the United States export most weapons to Saudi Arabia, the opposite has ended up being the case — mainly because of the close ties between the European economies.
In France and Britain, the fear is that the German weapons ban is disrupting their own supply chains. To assemble planes and ships for Saudi Arabia, those countries’ arms suppliers have so far heavily relied on high-tech components produced in Germany. British arms supplier BAE Systems’ Eurofighter Typhoon planes, for instance, include a number of elements previously imported from Germany. German high-tech products are also needed to meet the company’s contractual obligations to maintain already purchased jets, and to replace faulty components.
So when Germany halted its exports to Saudi Arabia last year, it didn’t only restrict deliveries of fully assembled products, but also of exactly those components used by other companies. Abroad, the move was seen as a unilateral decision by the Germans that ended up forcing several manufacturers to halt exports to the Saudis. Back in Berlin, however, it was unclear whether lawmakers were even fully aware of how much sway they had over other European nations’ weapons exports to Saudi Arabia, with thousands of jobs reliant on those exports across the continent.
They certainly are aware of it now, after condemnations from other parts of Europe have flooded Berlin in recent weeks. The chief executive of Airbus — a company in which Germany owns shares — offered a scathing response to the German exports halt, telling Reuters in February: “It has been driving us crazy at Airbus for years that when there is even just a tiny German part involved in, for example, helicopters, the German side gives itself the right to, for example, block the sale of a French helicopter,” Thomas Enders said.
European arms suppliers have reacted similarly furiously, with one unnamed individual telling the Financial Times last month: “We’ll soon get to the point where the Saudis can’t fly their planes anymore.”
On Tuesday, the French ambassador in Berlin, Anne-Marie Descôtes, doubled down on that criticism, writing that “credible export opportunities based on clear and predictable rules are an indispensable prerequisite for the continuation of our European defense industry.”
The French government has left few doubts that it considers the German move a threat to developing a joint framework for European arms exports. Common standards for the approval of arms exports would make it easier for European nations to step up arms production and to become more competitive with U.S. counterparts.
Germany and France’s very different responses to Saudi aggression abroad show that there is not a cross-European consensus on what constitutes an unacceptable human rights violation that would make a nation ineligible for exports.
In the case of Saudi Arabia, which could become a role model for similar dilemmas, one proposed solution would maintain the exports halt on German ships or other equipment but allow other European companies to use German high-tech components in exported planes or ships as long as a certain ratio is not exceeded.
For Berlin, that concession could be a face-saving agreement. To human rights advocates, it would probably still be an embarrassing confession that Europe’s richest nation is placing a price tag on its defense of human rights.
In any case, any move to water down export rules would be a deja vu moment for a German government that has pledged to stop arms exports to Saudi Arabia before but failed to live up to those promises.
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