The Guardian today publishes a piece headed: "Europe risks US sanctions over China arms sales", something which will not come as a surprise to regular readers of this Blog.
The thrust of the Guardian’s story is that "America and Europe" are being drawn ever closer into a "trade war" after senior US congressman issued a blunt warning to the EU over its plans to lift a 15-year-old arms embargo on China.
As recorded on this Blog last Sunday, Richard Lugar, the powerful republican head of the Senate foreign relations committee, is warning that the US would stop sales of military technology to Europe, together with his Democratic counterpart, Senator Joseph Biden, who has added his voice, saying that lifting of the ban would be "a non-starter with Congress".
According to the Guardian though, the EU commission is trying to strike a conciliatory tone, a spokeswoman saying yesterday that: "It is not our intention that this change will increase the quantity or the quality of arms exports to China."
The commission is also denying any intention to upset the military equilibrium in south-east Asia. “There are concerns in America about high technology transfer. We have made it clear that we want to talk to them about this," the spokeswoman added.
There are indications, however, that the EU is not able to control the agenda, to judge from a recent piece in DefenseNews.
There, the magazine’s Brussels correspondent, Brooks Tigner, is reporting that the US is considering reversing its preferred strategy of dealing bilaterally with EU member states in favour of negotiating directly with the EU.
But no sooner had this been mooted than a major obstacle has been encountered in that the EU cannot enforce arms export rules on member states. The case in point is the EU's proposed upgraded code of conduct, which is simply not enforceable.
Tigner cites an "arms policy official" who has told him: "Talk to different EU-law specialists and you get ten completely different opinions about whether the code can be made biding. And not one of them says unequivocally 'yes'".
Short of an enforceable arms ban, therefore, US officials are looking at the possibility of negotiating a trade agreements with EU member states, which would keep sensitive technology out of Chinese hands. But therein lies another problem. If it did bilateral deals with the six major arms exporters, there is a danger that some of the smaller EU countries could step in and fill the gap.
This is why US officials are looking to an EU deal as a possible salvation, but are finding that the commission might not be able to deliver. Furthermore, Washington is worried that EU officials do not have the expertise in arms export control that would enable them to police a deal effectively. Says one US official,
The problem is, who has the institutional knowledge, the technical background, to decide what should be OK and what shouldn’t. They don’t have the technical staffs and don’t know the arguments pro and con where the line should be drawn, where the bar should be. [The EU] doesn’t have an ability or competency to assess, grant or govern licenses.And it gets worse. A biding US-EU agreement on arms exports would be unprecedented and the control of arms falls to the separate 25 EU member states. Any co-ordination is carried out on a voluntary basis and it is hard to see that countries like France would hand over power to pursue their own commercial interests to the EU.
Thus, with the US House of Representatives voting on 1 February by a margin of 411 vote to 3, decrying the lifting of the EU’s arms embargo, the EU is facing a singular dilemma. Confronted by an increasingly hostile US, and unable to control its own members, it is being sucked into a tense political situation without the tools it needs to resolve it.
It will be down to individual member state governments, therefore, to deal with this issue but, if they make the wrong calls, it will be the EU that takes the rap. Not for the first time, the EU's ambitions have got it into more trouble than it can deal with.