German Arms Exports Fall as Controls Are Tightened

  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    German arms exports have boomed in recent years, but the government is keen to keep a strongly restrictive export regime in place, preventing weapons falling into the wrong hands.

  • Facts


    • In 2016, German arms exports were around €6.85 billion, down almost €1 billion on the previous year.
    • The country has strict export controls on arms, with all major deals needing the approval of a confidential committee of ministers.
    • Last year, 46.4 percent of all German arms exports went to EU or NATO member states.
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German arms are in demand. Picture source: Reuters

It is unusual for a minister to be happy to report a fall in exports. But when Brigitte Zypries, Germany’s economics minister, presents the country’s biannual arms industry report to her cabinet colleagues on Wednesday, she will be pleased to announce a continuing fall in weapons exports.

The official German report on the arms trade in 2016, which Handelsblatt has seen, suggests that exports fell from its 2015 level of €7.86 billion, around $8.81 billion, to €6.85 billion in 2016. However, this remains a historically high level of exports. An interim report on the first four months of this year showed a further fall, with exports dropping to €2.42 billion from €3.3 billion for the same period last year.

Ms. Zypries represents the center-left Social Democratic party, which has sought to restrict the arms trade for a number of years, and was embarrassed by the export boom of recent years. The arms industry is unpopular with the party’s broadly anti-militarist base. With federal elections just three months away, the issue is a potentially tricky one.

“I think we are a grown-up democracy and shouldn’t be afraid of public discussion of controversial arms deals.”

Sigmar Gabriel, German foreign minister

It is the job of the economics minister to report on arms exports, but decisions on the subject are made collectively by a nine-member committee of ministers, including Chancellor Angela Merkel. The deliberations of the committee are strictly confidential – the list of permitted arms deals is later announced, but no justifications are given. Rejected export deals are not reported publicly.

Ms. Zypries’ predecessor as economics minister, Sigmar Gabriel, is now foreign minister, but is continuing to push for more openness in decision-making on arms exports. “I think we are a grown-up democracy and shouldn’t be afraid of public discussion,” he said. The arms trade was tightly regulated by current guidelines, and these should be turned into law, he added. In general, Mr. Gabriel would like to see a ban on the export of certain weapons outside of the European Union and NATO. “And if exceptions are needed to that, then our parliament can discuss them,” he added.

The current German guidelines specify that countries’ human rights record must be taken into account in making sales decisions. “Arguments about jobs cannot be used as an argument in favor of exports,” said Mr. Gabriel. “Only German national interest, in terms of our foreign and security policy, can be the basis for export decisions.”

However, this can present difficulties for German ministers and diplomats, as Mr. Gabriel knows from his own experience. Explicitly or implicitly, foreign governments often seek to link possible arms purchases to other issues, for example the participation of German companies in major infrastructure projects. If passed, deals to problematic countries can cause trouble at home, but if rejected, they can disrupt relations with other nations. In 2015, Mr. Gabriel controversially vetoed the sale of 200 German-made Leopard tanks to Saudi Arabia.

Although the government has sought to tighten controls on weapons exports in recent years, this is not always immediately reflected in overall figures, since there is often a gap of several years between a deal’s approval and final delivery of the weapons. In addition, a single large deal – the sale of a warship or a submarine, for example – can have a strong impact on the annual figures. These kind of orders, moreover, are more likely to come from war-torn regions of the world, like Africa or the Middle East.

But the overall trends are comforting to ministers, who are looking to focus German arms sales on the country’s European allies. In 2016, 46.4 percent of all German arms exports went to EU or NATO countries, up five percentage points on the previous year. Exports to other countries were dominated by a small number of naval orders, including two frigates for the Algerian navy and a submarine sold to Egypt.

The export of small arms is often more controversial than that of large weapons systems, since they are more likely to be put to use. In this area, there has been a steady increase in German exports: in 2016, the total value of small arms exports amounted to €46.9 million, an increase of €15 million over the previous year.

The export of small arms is often more controversial than that of large weapons systems, since they are more likely to be put to use.

But the annual report says the increase is almost entirely due to increased exports to allied countries, with small-arms exports to non-allied nations at an all time low of €14.5 million. A substantial proportion of that amount went to the Kurdish regional government in Iraq, to assist with its fight against Islamic State. Approvals of small-arms exports continued to increase in early 2017, with €22.1 million in overseas sales. But the report confirms that a large part of this went to allied nations.

In 2015, the German government imposed stricter controls on weapons exports. In their end-user agreements, non-allied governments had to specify that they would accept on-site checks to confirm the location of the weapons they bought from Germany. This must also be approved by the arms companies supplying the weapons. In 2016, this led to a partial drop in the sales of some arms categories, as countries made sure of compliance before issuing orders.

In its latest report, the German government points out the progress already made toward a “restrictive and transparent arms export policy.” As well as the stricter measures towards preventing re-sales of approved export material, the government has also initiated an ongoing process of consultations with NGOs, churches and academic experts.


Martin Greive is a correspondent for Handelsblatt based in Berlin. To contact the author:

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