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How militarised is the EU’s foreign policy? – Interview with Bram Vranken

Interview with Bram Vranke about the rapid militarisation of the EU, its drivers and consequences and steps to promote peace and justice in the EU.

In our webinar „How militarized is the EU’s foreign policy?“ on November 17, 2021, Bram Vranke was our guest. Together we talked about the rapid militarisation of the EU, its drivers and consequences and discussed together steps to promote peace and justice in the EU. For those who could not be there, here is a short interview with Bram Vranken.

Q: Who is driving the EU’s militarisation?

Bram Vranken: Since 2015 there has been a drastic acceleration in the militarisation of the European Union. The European Defence Fund, a 8 billion military research programme, is one of the more visible examples of this trend, but the results stretch much further. A wide range of civilian programmes are  opened up to the arms industry.  The EU’s foreign policy is increasingly  focused  on  providing  military assistance to third states to ‘promote peace’, even though several of these allies are dictatorships. At the same time, EU border policies are aimed at keeping refugees and migrants out of Europe, using military means if necessary.

Member states with major arms industries such as France have been paramount in pushing an agenda of militarization forward, but the role of the arms industry in close collaboration with the European Commission cannot be understated.

Lobby organisations such as the Aerospace and Defence Association Europe (ASD) and the European Organisation for Security (EOS) are influential in pushing for a militarized Europe, but also arms companies such as Airbus have a strong representation in the EU bubble in Brussels. Arms company Airbus alone has a declared lobby budget of at least €1.75 million in 2019, and at least three lobby consultancies working for it. Since November 2014, Airbus has scored over 200 meetings with the upper echelons of the EU Commission which is the third highest amount of meetings of any corporation in the EU.

The role of the arms lobby in pushing for a militarized Europe especially stands out when looking at the decision making process on the European Defence Fund. Lobbying for the European Defence Fund already started in the 2000’s. During a conference of the European Defence Agency in 2007,  ASD’s  Ake  Svensson  called  on  the  EU  to  create  a  ‘Group  of  Wise  Men’ to  propose  an  agenda  for  military  research. In 2016 this became a reality when the European Commission established the ‘Group of Personalities’ (GoP), an official Commission advisory body with more than half of the members coming from the arms industry. The GoP proposed a substantial military research programme which quickly became official policy. Most of the funding of the Defence Fund  has gone to the very same companies which were represented in the Group of Personalities.

These examples point towards a symbiotic relationship between the arms industry and  EU  institutions, which has gone much further than what would be expected of a normal dialogue with stakeholders and which has been one of the main drivers of EU militarisation.

Q: How is the funding of these measures justified in times of a global pandemic and who profits from it?

Bram Vranken: The discouse on societal problems has become ever more securitized. Solutions to problems such as climate change, migration and even the pandemic are seen through a security lens, subject to  military solution. War is peace. Whatever the problem, increased military spending is often seen as one of the answers.

This has become even more evident at the start of the Covid pandemic. Hawkish think tanks such as the EU Institute for Security Studies quickly called the EU to “vaccinate Europe’s defence budgets” warning against budget cuts due to the pandemic and stating that “a lack of state investment in research and development will hurt [the industry’s] future export chances”. Others such as senior politicians and institutions ranging from the European Defence Agency, NATO and the official think tank of the EU have similarly called for increased military spending.

These calls are cynical to say the least as there is a clear opportunity cost. For every euro spend on weapons, there is less money for hospital beds and combating the pandemic.

At the same time, research done by the European Network Against Arms Trade (ENAAT) has clearly shown who profits from increased EU military spending. Major arms corporations such as Thales, Leonardo, Indra, Safran and Saab have captured a big chunk of projects under the European Defence Fund. These are also the companies which have at the same time actively lobbied for increased militarization of the EU.

Q: How can Europe become a real peace project that contributes to global justice?

Bram Vranken: There are a couple of very concrete steps the EU can take. First of all, making an end to arms exports to conflict zones and autocratic regimes is a no brainer. The EU Common Position on Arms Exports already puts a legal framework in place prohibiting the export of weapons if there is a risk these weapons might be used in armed conflict. These rules are at the moment however largely ignored by many of the member states. A first step would be that these government live up to their legal framework.

Likewise, there should be a push to drastically reduce military budgets. The member states of NATO are responsible for 52% of the world’s military expenditure. These over-sized defence budgets create insecurity instead op providing security.

Secondly, it is necessary to curtail the influence of the arms lobby. The interests of the weapons industry are not those of peace and stability, but profit and growth. The weapons industry and politicians must be completely separated. The World Health Organisation of the United Nations has a provision that the interests of the tobacco lobby and those of the public and public health are fundamentally different. Likewise, this holds for the weapons industry and our foreign and security policy.

Thirdly, the EU foreign policy should put the principle of ‘do no harm’ centerpiece. Recent military interventions in the Sahel region, in Libya, in Afghanistan have shown that that these interventions almost always make the situation worse. Moreover, it should be self-evident that the EU foreign policy respects human rights and international humanitarian law.

Lastly, global corporations should be held accountable for the human rights violations in their value chain, wherever these violations take place. This is first step to create a fairer and more equal global economy.