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German arms export ban called into question

Heiner Kiesel
January 20, 2018

As part of German government coalition talks, the major parties have announced a stop on all arms exports to any countries involved in the war in Yemen. But confusion remains over what the deal means.

Jemen Bürgerkrieg
Image: Getty Images/AFP

The German government had announced Friday that it would "immediately" stop approving arms exports to any country participating in the war in Yemen. The move would include Saudi Arabia, a major buyer of German weapons.

The document agreed upon by Germany's Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister party CSU and the Social Democrats (SPD) in exploratory coalition talks contains a sentence with major ramifications. The sentence, nestled towards the end of the document, could put and end to arms deals worth millions of euros. It succinctly states: "Effective immediately, the government will prohibit arms exports to countries involved in the Yemen conflict." Over the past years, German parliamentarians have debated extensively whether or not to condone arms exports to conflict regions. Now, a turnaround appears to have been decided in a surprisingly nonchalant manner.

German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert
Seibert offered a series of non-answers when asked what the ban really meansImage: picture-alliance/dpa/B. von Jutrczenka

Effective 'immediately'

Or was the turnaround a fait accompli? Speculation has ensued in Berlin over how the sentence should be interpreted. After all, it does state the turnaround is "effective immediately."

Asked whether this declaration really meant the immediate end to German arms exports, government spokesman Steffen Seibert circumnavigated the issue and flatly stated: "Members of Germany's caretaker government are bound by what the ministries agree among each other." It was one of several vague statements made by Chancellor Angela Merkel's longtime spokesman, when members of the press pounced upon the opportunity to question him at a regularly held press briefing.

Seibert also stated: "We make rigorous case-by-case assessments on the basis of Germany's strict rules governing arms exports." Shortly after the press conference ended, he took to Twitter to say the following: "To clarify: The government will not approve arms exports that contravene agreements made in the exploratory coalition talks." 

German trucks and boats for warring factions

Clarification is certainly needed. Because it's unclear if the sentence also applies to already approved arms sales to countries involved in the Yemen conflict. And those countries go beyond Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and Jordan.

Last year, arms exports worth a total of 1 billion euros ($1.22 billion) were approved. Moreover, in the last quarter of 2017 alone, Berlin approved the sale of trucks and patrol boats worth some 150 million euros to Saudi Arabia. Egypt, in turn, was set to receive exports worth almost 300 million euros.  

Much of what Berlin had previously approved for export before the announcement based on "rigorous case-by-case assessments" has not yet been delivered. If the agreed turnaround is taken literally, it could force Germany's caretaker government to cancel these exports for good. Which could, in turn, lead German arms manufactures to sue for damages, as Matthias Wachter warns.

Wachter, who heads the Federation of German Industries' (BDI) department for Security and Raw Materials, says "the government has legally approved the exports and that is what matters to companies." But in principle, Wachter says, he understands this ban on arms exports to conflict states.

Continuing mystery over export ban clause

The more time political figures in Berlin spend trying to analyze the exact meaning of the arms ban clause, the more confused they become.

Agnieszka Brugger, a Green party member of the Bundestag and expert on security issues, wonders what exactly the sentence means: "Does it also apply to already approved arms deals?" Either way, Brugger is pleased that in future, no arms will be sold to parties fighting in Yemen. "That was one of the big concessions the Greens won in exploratory talks over a four-party coalition with the CDU, CSU and liberal FDP party."

Dr. Rolf Mützenich
Rolf Mützenich, foreign policy spokesperson for the SPDImage: privat

Among members of the CDU and CSU, there still seems to be confusion over what this turnaround really means. There is even some resistance to the position within the CDU. Greifswald MP Philipp Amthor of the CDU told German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung that the decision "threatens the existence of Wolgast shipyard, which produces patrol boats for Saudi Arabia."

On the other hand, for Rolf Mützenich, MP for the Social Democrats and the party spokesperson for foreign affairs, things couldn't be clearer. "The message has been received in Wolgast." Mützenich was the one who insisted on the export turnaround in talks with the CDU/CSU. "It was hard work," he admits. Mützenich is adamant that the clause is unequivocal and that it has Angela Merkel's consent. And now, he stresses, all pending arms exports must be canceled.

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