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German arms exports shoot to new high

December 27, 2019

Three years of falling weapons and military hardware exports have gone into reverse, reaching almost €8 billion in 2019. The figures have been criticized as proving that controls on weapons deliveries are not working.

The German-made Leopard 2 tank
Image: picture-alliance/Ralph Zwilling - Tank-Masters.de

German arms exports rose 65% from January to mid-December 2019 compared to 2018 and hit a record of €7.95 billion ($8.8 billion), according to Economy Ministry figures. Politicians from the socialist Left Party and the Greens requested the data, which has been seen by DW.

The documents showed that two of Germany's top 10 arms export customers, Egypt at number two and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) at number nine, were active participants in the war in Yemen, in spite of government assurances that Germany would no longer arm those countries. 

The figures show government-approved exports of weapons, vehicles, and warships beat the previous record in 2015, which was followed by three consecutive years of drops in the value of exports.

Germany's total export licenses had already exceeded last year's total of €5.3 billion by the middle of the year, the figures revealed.

Read more: Angela Merkel calls for weapons exports to Africa

German debt to Afghan helpers

Greens: Exports to crisis regions destabilize

"The most important thing is to ask is where the war weapons go, and to which countries," Katja Keul, Green party parliamentarian and arms policy spokeswoman, told DW. "And the number of war weapons exports have doubled since last year."

The most controversial exports are those to so-called third countries: defined as neither European Union or NATO members (or "NATO-equivalent," such as Australia). The share of total exports to third countries fell from 52.9% to 44.2% compared to the previous year, but that is partly because overall sales increased. In absolute terms, sales to third countries rose by €1 billion, and five of the top 10 export destinations were third countries.

"That is certainly striking, because the government has said it is being more restrictive," said Keul. "If you export weapons of war into crisis regions to countries that are not bound to us by any kind of alliance, you are of course destabilizing the region." 

Economy Minister Peter Altmaier blamed the huge increase on a backlog caused by the monthslong wrangling to form a coalition following Germany's 2017 election. In his answer to the Green party's information request, State Secretary Ulrich Nussbaum repeated a line familiar from the government's regular arms export reports: that the total value of exports isn't an "adequate yardstick" of policy.

"More important is the type of goods and their purpose," he wrote. "The government pursues a restrictive and responsible arms export control policy."

It's true that large contracts with long lead times, for instance for submarines or tanks, often skew export figures, but the government's answers to a similar information request made in November showed that it rarely blocks an arms deal. In the January-to-October period of both 2018 and 2019, less than 1% of applications from German arms firms were denied: a total of 88 in 2018 and 56 in 2019, out of over 11,000 in 2018 and 9,900 in 2019.

Keul also had little time for the notion that other major western arms exporters, like the US, France, and Britain, have less public discussion about arms sales and so weaker export controls than Germany. "There are debates in those countries too," she said, citing a UK high court ruling from June that made arms sales to Saudi Arabia unlawful, while the US Congress voted in July to block arms sales to Gulf nations, a decision then vetoed by President Donald Trump.

She also pointed out that Germany has laxer rules on end-use controls than the US, and is less restrictive about allowing arms companies to start joint ventures than France.

Read more: Germany: No total arms export ban for Turkey despite Merkel's promise

Weapons still meant for Yemen?

The largest number of German weapons deliveries in 2019 went to Hungary, where exports reached €1.77 billion, followed by Egypt at €802 million and the United States at €483 million.

Exports to Budapest made up almost a quarter of the total value of all approvals. Prime Minister Viktor Orban's right-wing, nationalist government is currently engaged in a massive military upgrade.

The Berlin government agreed to halt arms exports to the countries involved in the Yemen conflict as part of the coalition deal reached in 2018. It later said it would ban all exports to Saudi Arabia following the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, though subsequent reports showed that the government still approved some exports to Riyadh this year.

Read more: German arms companies accused of aiding war crimes in Yemen

"These sizable figures show that the entire export control system is simply not working," Left party Bundestag member Sevim Dagdelen, who filed one of the information requests, said in a statement. "We need clear legal bans on arms exports."

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Benjamin Knight Kommentarbild PROVISORISCH
Ben Knight Ben Knight is a journalist in Berlin who mainly writes about German politics.@BenWernerKnight