Arms Wrestling

Questions of Morality Overshadow Discussions About Armaments Sales

arms
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  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Europe’s armaments industry faces further consolidation and job losses amid a heated moral discussion about selling weapons in crisis areas,

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The SPD and German trade unions see themselves as historical figures in the international peace movement, but that view would be tarnished by the sale of weapons to violent regimes.
    • There is no money to convert arms manufacturers into other lines of business even as mergers are likely to slash thousands of jobs in the future.
    • The issue demands serious debate without any political grandstanding.
  • Audio

    Audio

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The Social Democratic Party and trade unions in Germany are in a quandary. Both groups see themselves as major figures in the international peace movement, but it’s difficult to reconcile that lofty vision with the export of arms to unstable regions of the world.

Yet the SPD and Germany’s biggest trade union, the Industrial Union of Metalworkers, or IG Metall, with 2.4 million members, are also pioneers of the worker’s movement and committed to the interests of employees in the German armaments industry.

This raises a vexing question of morality: What is more important? Thousands killed with German-made weapons wielded by religious fanatics, warlords and potentates or 100,000 jobs lost in German industry?

No one expected a meeting between Sigmar Gabriel, who is the SPD chairman, vice chancellor and minister for economic affairs and energy, and the works councils of the German armaments companies to find a quick way out of this dilemma. But Mr. Gabriel again made it clear to the manufacturers that arms exports to countries outside the European Union and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization could only be considered in exceptional cases.

It is tragic that the long-simmering debate about the future of German arms exports and of the German defense industry is now being driven by the escalating conflicts in Iraq and Ukraine.

IG Metall’s idea of turning “swords to ploughshares” – a concept for transforming armaments manufacturers into companies producing civil products – can’t be implemented overnight, if at all, even if the federal government provides financial support. Too much time has been wasted on such issues in the past.

Mr. Gabriel has already made one point abundantly clear: In a united Europe, it makes no sense for each member country to go it alone. There will be further mergers in the armaments industry, such as the proposed alliance between the German tank manufacturer, Krauss-Maffei Wegmann, and the French Nexter Group, and these will result in job losses.

Yet in the eyes of armaments workers, Mr. Gabriel isn’t the only villain. He is making sure Ursula von der Leyen, the first woman minister of defense in German history and a member of Christian Democratic Union, also bears responsibility. It will be up to Ms. von der Leyen, he is quick to point out, to specify what armaments projects are in the pipeline for the German army, not him.

Of course, Mr. Gabriel knows the German armaments budget doesn’t permit any subsidized projects in the foreseeable future, just like the budgets of most of Germany’s allies in the European Union and NATO. Ms. von der Leyen has let it be known she sees current opportunities for German armaments companies by supplying the Iraqi Kurds in their struggle against radical Islamic forces.

It is tragic that the long-simmering debate about the future of German arms exports and of the German defense industry is now being driven by the escalating conflicts in Iraq and Ukraine. There is a grave danger that the issue will be used improperly for political agendas within the grand coalition between the SPD and the CDU. The implications of the discussion are much too serious for political shenanigans.

Mr. Gabriel, too, will have to make a decision. Sooner or later.

The author can be reached at: specht@handelsblatt.com

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