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It doesn't make sense II

Posted by Richard Friday, March 18, 2005

As the drama over lifting of the EU arms embargo on China grumbles on, giving observers the feeling of a perpetual "Groundhog day", Luxembourg prime minister Juncker is now pledging that he "will do his best" to get the embargo lifted by the end of June – which was always the intention anyway.

Much of the "European's" case for reassuring the US that the lifting the embargo will not lead to high-tech weaponry flooding into China rests on the resolution of the so-called "code of conduct" which purports to limit the types of armaments that can be sold.

Already dismissed as a fig-leaf, arising from the very simple fact that the code has no legal status and cannot be enforced, the pretensions of the Europeans are brought into stark focus by a positively surreal story in the latest edition of DefenseNews which describes how Belgian government, that most communautaire of all governments, has completely lost control over its own arms export policy.

Under the heading, "No control from the top, no coordination", DefenseNews's Brussels correspondent writes that a 2003 decision to devolve arms export authority to the country’s three autonomous regional authorities has left Belgium with no national authority over arms exports.

Furthermore, this "glaring inconsistency" between national and regional interests has been underscored with a recent move by Belgium's French-speaking Walloon regional government to authorise the arms-maker New Lachaussée, Liège, to export a munitions factory to Tanzania. The Walloon government announced its approval of the export in mid- February.

Yet there can be no assurances that ammunition produced by the factory in Tanzania will not make its way illegally to Africa’s conflict-devastated Great Lakes region, especially as the US State Department has previously cited Tanzania’s porous borders as a source of illegal weapons that permeate east Africa.

At the same time, in total contradiction to the Walloon stance, the Belgian national government is brokering reconstruction and stability accords among former warring parties in the Great Lakes region. The Tanzania export decision, therefore, has pitted Belgium's national security interests against regional economic ones.

Says DefenseNews, the problem exists because the federal and three lower governments of Wallonia, Flanders and the municipal region of Brussels have not produced a cooperation agreement for pre-export consultations as called for by the 2003 regionalization decision.

All policy responsibility except for defense, federal tax and social security has been spun off to the three regional governments. Each region even has its own international relations minister, who competes to a certain degree with the country’s federal foreign minister.

The 2003 decision arose from a dispute the previous year, when Flanders opposed federal government approval for arms-maker Fabrique National, also based in Liège, to export 5,500 automatic rifles to Nepal, where the government was fighting rebels.

Many international groups described that conflict as a civil war, and Belgian law forbids arms exports to countries engaged in civil war. Flanders subsequently forced the national government to devolve arms authorization to the regional level.

The lack of an export consultation agreement among the country’s various political authorities "has created a serious lacuna in our arms export regime," said Claudio Gramizzi, arms export researcher here at Groupe de Recherche et d'Information sur la Paix et la Sécurité (GRIP), a policy group.

"We already pointed this out in 2003, that transferring authority to the regional level ran the risk of a contradiction in national versus regional interests," he added. "They took the decision too fast, without thinking through the consequences, and now they’re paying the price."

The cooperation agreement was supposed to prevent this kind of conflict, but bureaucratic inertia has stymied its development, said Gramizzi. “Belgium also held its regional elections in June 2004, and that didn’t help expedite things either,” he added.

But even if the agreement was in place, the GRIP official doubted the regional governments’ ability to assess the complexity of arms exports. “All the expertise has traditionally lain with the federal government,” Gramizzi said. “The regions don’t have this and they haven’t set up the proper kinds of services to do it, whether for resource reasons or whatever. The whole situation is ambiguous and could lead to dangerous contradictions of policy.

"I exaggerate - but not much - when I say this situation could see Wallonia exporting arms to one side of a conflict and Flanders to the other, such as India and Pakistan. It is not logical and not watertight the way things now stand."

Into this absurd situation, we now can see the blandishments on the “code of conduct” in their true perspective. If Belgium cannot even mange its own internal affairs, what is the chance of the 25 EU nations successfully co-operating on enforcing a code which has no legal bite and runs contrary to the commercial interests of many of the major players?

For the EU to throw out the arms embargo, which is shaky enough already, in favour of relying on something even less tenable, simply does not make sense.