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Arms or Allies?

RIGA – It should surprise no one that many in Latvia view the sale by France of fully-equipped assault warships to Russia with grave concern. Other European Union member states seem to be looking increasingly towards Russia as a potential purchaser of military equipment. But is it wise for EU and NATO members to enhance the capacity of non-allies to project their military power? After all, only two and a half years ago, Russia invaded Georgia, a country that NATO had named as a potential future member, and has occupied part of it ever since.

The EU Council’s common position on arms exports is legally binding on all EU states. Of course, competence and responsibility for arms-export controls and licensing rests with member states, not EU institutions. Indeed, under the Wassenaar Arrangement, a decision on exports is the sole responsibility of each participating state.

Implementation of the common EU position on arms exports has led to more exchanges of information, greater transparency, and closer consultation. It has also harmonized export-control arrangements and procedures. But there are obvious limits to what can be achieved. Consultations are currently a bilateral matter, with no rules governing how they should be conducted – and no requirement that any final agreement on arms-export decisions be reached.

The effectiveness of this consultation mechanism is difficult to evaluate. According to the common position’s provisions, before a member state grants an export license, it should consult with any member state that has previously denied a similar license. But the common position does not specify the extent to which another member state should be consulted. More importantly, it does not require the arms-exporting member state to consult with any other member state that might have concerns.