Several member states of the European Union count among the world's leading weapons exporters, particularly Great Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Sweden. Weapons policy, however, remains the domain of national governments, and the European Parliament can only advise and suggest. On Wednesday it did just that, debating new restrictions on weapons exports and urging the bloc not to end its arms embargo on China.
Although officially the European Parliament's hands are tied regarding armaments questions, parliamentarians increasingly see it as their duty to comment on controversial developments. This criticism has now been made into a 26-page report by Spanish Parliamentarian Raul Romeva Rueda.
Rueda's report took issue with the EU's code of conduct for weapons sales, which is supposed to provide a set of ethical guidelines for countries to follow. However, the document, which was created in 1998, is not legally binding. The European Parliament is overwhelmingly in favor of changing that.
"The main problem with the code of conduct is that it is a very weak instrument," Rueda said.
The code of conduct sets a series of minimum standards for arms exports. Those include stipulations that no weapons should be sold to countries that might use them to abuse human rights. Weapons are also not to go to countries where regional conflicts are taking place, or where weapons purchases will further poverty in the population.
"Some of the equipment being sent to countries is torture equipment, or equipment that is being used to apply the death penalty," he said. "You have electric sticks, for instance, that is sometimes used by some police to force confessions."
China arms embargo should stay
The question of the weapons embargo placed on China after the 1989 crushing of a pro-democracy uprising in Tiananmen Square has proved decisive among EU nations, although not in the parliament. MEPs called on the EU Council and member states to maintain the EU embargo with China and not to weaken the existing national limitations on such arm sales.
While the EU legislature's vote is not binding, it does carry some moral weight.
According to EU External Relations Commissioner Chris Patten, China does not meet international standards on human rights. While he added that the embargo is a matter for the leaders of EU member states, he was adamant that he did not want the embargo to be cancelled.
"Without making any direct link, we have … told China that lifting the embargo would be greatly assisted if they could take concrete steps in the field of human rights," he told parliamentarians.
France has taken the lead in calling for a lifting of the arms embargo but is has not found unanimous support among EU heads of state and it remains a controversial topic. For conservative deputy Thomas Mann, who also heads the parliament's Tibet group, cancelling the embargo is unthinkable.
"The prerequisites are simply not there," he said. "The EU is based upon the maintenance of human rights. We can't go in the opposite direction."
About one half of the EU's 25 member states are in favor of lifting the embargo. Now parliamentarians are pushing to make the code of conduct for arms sales legally binding so that if arms do begin going to China, stricter controls will be in place. The Netherlands, currently the president of the EU, has been drawing up a revised code."We are also discussing measures in addition to the code of conduct that should prevent an increase in a flow of arms from Europe to china should the embargo be lifted. These measures are aimed at increasing transparency," said Dutch Europe Minister Atzo Nicolai.