Ludo De Brabander
Printvriendelijke versie
How the EU Militarisation and Arms Trade is Endangering Global Peace and Human Security
Protest against funding arms industry at EU parliament (Photo: L. De Brabander)

How the EU Militarisation and Arms Trade is Endangering Global Peace and Human Security

The EU pretends to develop a global and coherent security approach. In reality the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) is about creating a military capacity for expeditionary forces, supporting Europe's arms industry and consequently contributing to destabilization and human rights violations.

In June 2016, Federica Mogherini, the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, presented the Global Strategy for the European Union's Foreign and Security Policy. It came thirteen years after the first European Security Strategy (2003) to give direction to a foreign and security policy that addresses - as it is often repeated on the official EU web pages - an increasingly complex and uncertain security environment and to help the EU to become a globally more capable, more coherent and more strategic actor. Unfortunately, there is a big gap between good intentions for a global and coherent security approach on the one hand and the political reality of the Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) that is initially working on the development of a military capacity. Since the publication of the 'Global Strategy', the expansion of the military wing of the EU has been gaining momentum.

In 2003, Javier Solana, the then High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, came up with the first European Security Strategy.1 Its purpose was to put an end to the European disagreements resulting from the war in Iraq. The United Kingdom (UK), Spain, Italy but also a number of Eastern EU candidate countries supported the American Iraq war and formed a "coalition of the willing". On the other hand, France, Germany and Belgium, were not eager to follow the US/UK war logic. There was absolutely no question of a “Common” Foreign and Security Policy. The European political elite therefore considered it necessary to agree on a joint European strategy to record the threats and responses to them. In a sense, the European Strategy, published in December 2003, entitled "A Secure Europe in a Better World" helped to lay the foundation for the militarized security and defence chapter in the later Lisbon Treaty.

A changed European security environment

9/11, the Iraq war, and the Balkan wars did not prevent Solana’s strategy document from opening optimistically with: “Europe has never been so prosperous, so secure nor so free.”2 It further stated: “The increasing convergence of European interests and the strengthening of mutual solidarity of the EU makes us a more credible and effective actor. Europe should be ready to share in the responsibility for global security and in building a better world.” And: “The European Union has made progress towards a coherent foreign policy and effective crisis management.”3

Now, thirteen years later, the European safety environment looks completely different. The wars in Syria and Ukraine, the refugee crisis, terrorist attacks and Brexit have not only shaken up overall security perceptions, but also the optimism of a Europe that is able to tackle these threats in solidarity. The political establishment decided that the 2003 European security strategy was in urgent need of replacement. When Federica Mogherini took over as the new High Representative, one of her first assignments was to prepare a new European Strategy Paper. In this, optimism makes way for a rather dramatic analysis: “We live in times of existential crisis, within and beyond the European Union. Our Union is under threat.”4 Important security challenges are “to the east”, (where) the European security order has been violated, while terrorism and violence plague North Africa and the Middle East, as well as Europe itself.”

Absence of European responsibility

Mogherini's Global Strategy offers little room for self-criticism. The European Union is presented as uniquely value-based and its main objective is to defend its noble principles in and outside the EU. There is no lack of good intentions: “Echoing the Sustainable Development Goals, the EU will adopt a joined-up approach to its humanitarian, development, migration, trade, investment, infrastructure, education, health and research policies, as well as improve horizontal coherence between the EU and its Member States.”5 Although the Global Strategy reaffirms the collective commitment to achieve 0,7% ODA (Official Development Assistance in percentage of the GDP), only four EU-countries (Sweden, Luxembourg, Denmark, UK) reached the target in 2017, while most EU-countries saw a drop in ODA the same year.6 In 2005 the 15 countries that were then EU-members agreed to reach the target by 2015. By 2017, 15 countries of the current member states did not even achieve half of the goal, while the overall ODA was decreasing.

It is one of many examples that shows a gap between the intentions of the Global Strategy and reality.

The lack of self-criticism and the absence of European responsibilities in the cited emergence of threats arising from the destabilized European security environment is striking. The Global Strategy remains silent on how European arms exports, neo-liberal trade policy, support for authoritarian regimes and laxity with regard to Israeli colonisation and repression in the Palestinian territories, the western wars in Iraq or Libya, among others have contributed to the destabilisation of the southern 'periphery'.

While the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, according to the Global Strategy, poses a growing threat to Europe and the wider world, the hundreds of nuclear weapons deployed in France, UK, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Italy are disregarded, notwithstanding that those nuclear arsenals on European soil are all subject of a modernization programs. The Global Strategy states that, “the EU will strongly support the expanding membership, universalisation, full implementation and enforcement of multilateral disarmament, non-proliferation and arms control treaties and regimes”, although one year later (7 July 2017), only four EU-member states (Austria, Ireland, Malta and Sweden) adopted the new UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.7 Most EU-countries (all those who are member of NATO, with the exemption of the Netherlands) refused even to participate in the negations leading to the treaty.

The issue of arms control is equally subject to sounding statements in the Global Strategy that are not in agreement with European reality. It is claimed that the EU will actively participate in arms export control systems and “strengthen common rules governing Member States’ export policies of military – including dual-use – equipment and technologies (…).”8 Since 1998, the EU adopted a Code of Conduct defining eight criteria that must curb arms exports. Although a Common Position (2008) made them binding it doesn't prevent EU countries exporting arms to end up in violent conflict zones. Saudi Arabia remains the main destination for European weapons, even after human rights organizations documented Saudi Arabia's large scale war crimes in Yemen. Other problematic countries, such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are also in the top 10 of the most important destinations of European arms transfers. There are no indications that European member states will put aside the interests of its arms industry to prevent arms trade will provoke “fragility beyond our borders”, even when the Global Strategy pledges that “in a more contested world, the EU will be guided by a strong sense of responsibility (…) [and] will therefore act promptly to prevent violent conflict.”9 The Global Strategy confirms that the “SDGs also encourage us to expand and apply the principle of policy coherence for development.”10 SDG 16 is about promoting “peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development”. While only “illicit arms trade” is considered as a SDG 16-target, the transfer of arms to violent conflict zones and countries with systematic human rights violations is clearly not an act of promoting “peaceful societies”.

Militarization of the EU

Although the European Security Strategy pays lip service to a broad and coherent security approach, in reality the focus is on greater military efforts and military cooperation under a treaty that obliges states into armament (not disarmament). According to Article 42 (3) of the Treaty of the European Union (Treaty of Lisbon): "Member States shall undertake progressively to improve their military capabilities". The mission for armament has been prepared for a while with the establishment of the European Defence Agency (EDA) in 2004. According to the Lisbon Treaty, which was approved in December 2007, it is EDA's task to "strengthen [sic] the industrial and technological base of the defence sector” and to “participate in defining a European capabilities and armaments policy (...)”. The EDA is the only EU agency with a Board of Directors at ministerial level. It is also one of the few bodies whose mission is so closely linked to the interests of an industrial sector. The EDA has 130 employees, but also a network of 4,000 "defence specialists" contributing to different types of teams and working groups. These are also widely open to members of the military industry. The EDA has since become the most important forum for partnerships of the military industry with the EU administration, scientific world, the army and policy makers. It forms the core of the European 'Military Industrial Complex' (MIC). The major policy lines for European defence and armament policies are outlined by the EDA.

More military investments

In 2007, the European member states agreed on a strategy that should lead to a stronger industrial and technological base for European defence. According to the EDA, this is necessary to be able to respond to the operational requirements of future armies. This strategy includes a plea for more investments in both military equipment and in research and development. The EDA explicitly states on its website that it is the intention to work for a “robust European Defence Technological and Industrial Base (EDTIB)” to become “more competitive both in Europe and around the world” and enhancing “global competitiveness”11. Consequently, “global competitiveness” can be translated as consolidating the EU as a provider of arms worldwide. Since then, that mantra has been repeated in all relevant political and military forums and it has finally been picked up in the new Global Strategy: "A sustainable, innovative and competitive European defence industry is essential for Europe's strategic autonomy and for a credible CSDP."12

The "competitive" European military industry is with 27% the second (after the US) most important arms supplier to the world. The Middle East/North Africa region is one of the main destinations for EU weapons. According to SIPRI, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, “for four of these countries [France, Germany, the United Kingdom and Italy], the region that accounted for the highest growth in exports was the Middle East. French arms exports to the region rose by 261 per cent between 2009–13 and 2014–18, while German, Italian and British exports grew by 125, 75 and 30 per cent, respectively.”13

The Global Strategy recognizes that this region is in a state of turmoil and that breaking “the political economy of the war" must be worked on.14 However, it seems that economic priorities are more important. According to the European Council, a strong EDTIB will bring “benefits in terms of growth, jobs and innovation to the broader European industrial sector.”15

Two years later, the Council calls on Member States to “allocate a sufficient level of expenditure for defence”, a favour that is not easily awarded to other departments in times of budgetary constraints.16 In addition, EU ministers also call for adequate European funding for defence research.

European Defence Fund

In his 'State of the Union' of 14 September 2016, the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker stated that a strong European defence needs a European defence industry that innovates. Junker: "That is why we will propose before the end of the year a European Defence Fund, to turbo boost research and innovation."17 Barely three months later, the European Commission publishes the European Defence Action Plan outlining the establishment of the European Defence Fund (EDF). It includes two parts about funding. The first part concerns the financing of defence research. From 2018 to 2020, 90 million is allocated annually for defence research. For the period 2020 to 2027, the Commission proposes to invest 500 million euro a year in defence research. A second part involves the creation of a financial instrument for joint investment by Member States in military equipment with a view to reducing purchasing costs. The European Commission is considering an annual amount of 5 billion euros. By the end of 2018 the European Parliament approves the final European Commission proposal to scale up the EDF to 13 billion Euro for the next long-term EU budget 2021-2027. The Fund will provide 4.1 billion euro to directly finance competitive and collaborative research projects, particularly through grants. Beyond the research phase, 8.9 billion euro will be available to complement member state investments in defence products by co-financing the costs for prototype development.18

Until recently, the rule applied was that military-related research is excluded from European research programs like Horizon 2020. This policy has been changed. These developments do not seem to be motivated solely by a concern for a well-developed security and defence policy. The plan to put public funds in defence research suits the military industry very well.

The EDF is a new but not last step in the militarization of the European Union. On December 11, 2017, the European Council decided to set up PESCO (Permanent Structured Cooperation) in which most EU Member States except Denmark, Malta and the United Kingdom participate. PESCO is aimed to step up the European Union’s work to enhance coordination, increase investment in defence and cooperation in developing defence capabilities. Participating countries are committed to a whole list of strict mandatory criteria. For example, participating Member States must "regularly" increase defence budgets. 20% of military spending must be used for military investments.

Global arms market

In 2015, the European Commission asked a so-called 'Personalities Group' to issue an opinion on launching a 'Preparatory Action' on defence research. At the beginning of 2016, this Group of Personalities, of whom almost half are directly linked to the defence industry, published its report. Not surprisingly, the Group concludes that more European money must go to defence research and to joint investments in military equipment. The Commission's proposal to spend 90 million euro annually in a test period and from 500 million euro per year on defence research in 2020 is a direct recommendation of the report. The need for a defence industry to compete on the world market is also prominent in the report: “From an industrial viewpoint, access to international markets is a necessity, but not only as a means to compensate for a declining domestic market: export growth significantly contributes to sustaining the critical mass of European defence companies and highlights the competitiveness, capability, performance and reliability of European export products.”19 Further on, it says: "If the EU Member States do not invest in the next generation of defence technologies and do not find a common position on defence exports, other countries will ultimately displace European suppliers on export markets."20

The European arms trade nevertheless is likely to cause the opposite of the CSDP self-declared objectives “to take a leading role in peace-keeping operations, conflict prevention and in the strengthening of the international security”.21 The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development that has been adopted by the EU says: “We are determined to foster peaceful, just and inclusive societies which are free from fear and violence.”22

An analyses of the Centre Delàs in Barcelona concluded that EU arms foster violent conflicts and contribute to the refugee crisis: “The member states of the EU exported arms to 212 destinations, of which 89 have presented significant numbers of refugees or displaced persons and of which 65 are in conflict or unrest. A 29% of European arms exports from 2003 to 2014 (122 billion) were committed to places in conflict and/or tension, resulting in a total of 37.281 million euros in realized exports to these countries. (…) In 26 of the primary recipients of European arms with fluxes of refugees and displaced persons, the impact of arms imports is correlated with a negative evolution or perpetuation of conflict. These countries make up 7.4% of the authorized exports and 7.8% of realized exports, or 33.61 million euros and 9.32 million euros million respectively. These 26 countries have generated 75% of the refugees and displaced persons during this period (27.2 million people).”23

It is not unlikely that the EU military industry, driven by competition and EU funded innovation, will strengthen its position in the worldwide arms export and more in particular to violent conflict areas.


As arms are a major component in fuelling violent conflicts, it seems quite cynical that European programs like the EDF and PESCO are developed to strengthen the EU's capabilities for crisis management and military intervention in conflict areas that have been supplied by EU arms that are contributing to the refugee crisis. Some of the beneficiaries of EU border security contracts, worth 15 billion euro in 2015, belong to the biggest arms sellers to the Middle-East and North-African region. The big players in Europe’s border security complex include arms companies Airbus, Finmeccanica, Thales and Safran. Finmeccanica, Thales and Airbus are also three of the top four European arms traders, all selling to countries in the Middle East and North Africa. Their total revenues in 2015 amounted to 95 billion euros.24

The EU must act in accordance with its proclaimed policy as stated in the Global Strategy: "The European Union will promote peace and guarantee its citizens and territory. Internal and external security are ever more intertwined: our security at home depends on peace beyond our borders."25 The EU should also adhere to the commitments made in Agenda 2030 "to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development" (SDG 16). Human rights and the prevention of violent conflicts must prevail over the interests of the military industry. It is obvious that the European arms trade has a negative impact on human security worldwide. However, with the EU Common Position on arms export control, the EU has a well-defined legal framework that should ensure that its weapons are not used in violent conflicts and in human rights violations. The militarization of the EU and the imposed standards in terms of budget and capacity development are difficult to reconcile with policies to promote peace.

The EU must develop a more coherent vision of non-military peace policy:

Sustainable development is the best way to prevent violence. Domestic and foreign policy must strive for a coherent implementation of the concept of human security (as defined by UNDP in 1994)26, addressing the root causes of insecurity and coordinating different policy instruments. At the domestic and foreign level, this means a cap on military spending. Public investments should benefit human security in its broadest sense. Social security is also human security.

The EU must take the lead in an active peace policy:

Military expenditures must be limited and refocused to a basic defence capacity, supporting UN peacekeeping operations (such as mine clearance or disarmament missions) and avoiding highly militarised peace enforcement operations. The EU can do much better in the field of diplomacy aimed at resolving conflict situations and focusing on non-violent local conflict prevention and managment, which requires sufficient resources and capacity.

Curb the arms trade:

EU member states must stop licensing arms exports to problematic destinations (violent conflict areas, human rights violations, etc.). A restrictive interpretation of the arms legislation and control of the final destination and use of exported weapons and components (including dual-use equipment) is needed. Arms trade must not be an obstacle to the EU Foreign policy if it is really about being a global actor for peace, human security and stability. The public funding of the arms industry is contrary to the promotion of peace.

(*) This article is a contribution to the Spotlight Report on Sustainability in Europe: Who is paying the Bill ? (Negative) impacts of EU policies and practices in the World.

The launch of the report will be in New York will be on Monday 15th of July from 16.30h-18.00h at the Church Center, 10th floor (Opposite to the UNHQ).



1A Secure Europe in a Better World. European Security Strategy (2003). Brussels, 12 December 2003

2A Secure Europe in a Better World. European Security Strategy (2003), p. 1

3A Secure Europe in a Better World. European Security Strategy (2003), p. 11

4Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe. A Global Strategy for the European Union's Foreign and Security Policy (2016), Brussels, June 2016, p. 7

5Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe (2016), p. 26

6OECD (2019), Net ODA (indicator) (doi: 10.1787/33346549-en, accessed on 17 March 2019)

7ICAN, Positions of the Treaty ( accessed on 18 March 2019)

8Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe (2016), p. 42

9Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe (2016), pp. 17-18

10Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe (2016), p. 50

11EDA, Strategy for the European Defense Technological and Industrial Base ( accessed on 18 March 2019)

12Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe (2016), p. 46

13SIPRI (2019), Trends in International Arms Transfers, 2018. Sipri Fact Sheet, March 2019, p. 5 (

14Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe (2016), p. 31

15European Council (2013), Conclusions, 20 December 2013 ( accessed on 18 March 2019)

16European Council (2015), Conclusions, 26 June 2015 (

17 European Commission (2016), State of the Union Address 2016: Towards a better Europe - a Europe that protects, empowers and defends, 14 September 2016 ( accessed on 19 March 2019)

18Barns, M. (2018), EU Parliament approves new 13billion euro European Defence Fund,. In: The Parliament Magazine, 26 November 2018 (, accessed on 19 March 2019)

19Group of Personalities (2016), European Defence Research. The case for a EU-funded Defence R&T Programme. Paris: The European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), February 2016 (

20Group of Personalities (2016), pp. 45-46

21European Union External Action (2018), The Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), 3 May 2018 (

22 UN General Assembly (2015), Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015 ( accessed on 18 March 2019)

23 Rufanges, J.C.; Benedicto, A.R.; Vargas, E.V. (2017), European Arms that Foster Armed Conflicts that Cause Refugees to Flee. An Analysis of Arms Exports from the European Union to Countries in Conflict or Tension with Refugees or Internally Displaced Persons 2003-14. Barcelona: Centre Delàs d’Estudis per la Pau, june 2017, p. 41

24 Akkerman, M. (2016), Border Wars. The arms dealers profiting from Europe's refugee tragedy. Amsterdam: Transnational Institute/Stop Wapenhandel, pp. 1-2 (

25 Shared Vision, Common Action: A Stronger Europe (2016), p. 7

26 UNDP (1994), New Dimensions of Human Security. Human Development Report 1994. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press

steun ons

© 2021 vrede vzw - website by