Brexit’s dominance of the news agenda means that big questions have been asked about the UK’s engagement with the rest of the continent, but rather less is being said about the future of the EU itself. Unfortunately this has meant that a lot of important issues and debates have passed with minimal scrutiny.
One such issue arose last month, when the European Parliament voted to establish a ‘European Defence Fund.’ It is a major step towards the EU adopting an institutional military-industrial strategy. The move followed a report compiled by the Parliament’s Committee on Industry, Research and Energy and, if the proposals are accepted by member states, would offer a €13 billion subsidy for arms companies to do EU-wide research in 2021-2027.
The legislative proposal is to allocate €4.1 billion to research actions and €8.9 billion to development actions (R&D). With member states unlikely to increase their contributions, the money will likely have to come from civilian budgets.
The concept of the fund was originally announced by President Juncker in 2016, and backed by the European Council later that year. It was agreed that between 2017-2020 a total of €590 million would be channelled to the arms industry to fund initial pilot projects. This spending will be totally eclipsed by the agreed increase.
It marks a major change for the EU. At present, the European Commission finances exclusively civilian or dual-use R&D through its €80 billion Horizon 2020 programme. Not only does the Defence fund set a precedent, the European Commission is already blurring the line by asking for a range of civilian programmes to include arms sector needs in their priorities.
It is clear which interests have been put at the heart of the project. The ‘Group of Personalities’ that was appointed to develop proposals was dominated by the arms trade. Nine of the 16 Group members were arms industry representatives, so the pro-military conclusion is not particularly surprising.
In effect the arms industry was brought in to advise the EU on military strategy and reached the conclusion that what is needed is more military spending. Six of the companies that have already benefited from the initial pilot projects had members on the Group that proposed it.
There are also serious questions about the boundaries of the fund. Member States refused to exclude funding for the development of fully autonomous weapons in the 2019-2020 pilot phase of the Defence Fund.
Furthermore, the draft Regulation for 2021-2027 specifically mentions “disruptive technologies” as a focus. This means that weapons or technologies which “can radically change the concepts and conduct of” war, such as artificial intelligence. Unless the member states take a strong stand against this in the coming weeks, EU taxpayers money could pave the way for new controversial military technology such as drones and ‘killer robots.’
Security is obviously a major challenge and that the EU has a critical role to play in addressing it. However, threats to security are multi-faceted and the solutions that the EU proposes to address them must be clearly based on the Treaties and what are meant to be the core values of the EU.
The EU was envisaged as a peace project. The European Parliament stood up for those values in 2016 February, when it voted to support an arms embargo against Saudi Arabia due to its devastating bombardment of Yemen. Many of the weapons being used in the destruction are made in Europe, with many being manufactured by the same companies that would benefit from the proposed subsidy.
Regardless of the UK’s relationship with Europe, it should be investing in jobs and research projects that promote sustainable industries and contribute to peace-building. This fund could mean taking money from other projects for something that would only benefit companies that profit from repression and conflict. The huge increase in scope and spending between the pilot project and the current proposal indicate that if this change is embedded it will be very hard to reverse.
With such a turbulent news agenda, the change may not be generating the headlines that it deserves, but there has been a strong grass-roots opposition. 143,000 people have signed a European Network Against Arms Trade petition to oppose the spending.
Last month, 42 campaign groups from across Europe issued a joint statement to oppose the fund and call for a rethink. 177 European scientists also raised concerns about the military turn the EU is taking and the potential development of autonomous weapons.
Underpinning the opposition is the much broader question of what kind of Europe we want. Do we want to build a social Europe that invests in people and building peace, or do we want one that takes us further down the path of arms sales, militarism and war?
Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT). You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.