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framework Demichelis, researcher of the University of Navarra Institute for Culture and Society

Selling arms to the Middle East calls European democracy into question

Sun, 28 Jul 2019 11:06:00 +0000 Published in News Journal

In recent months, two events have taken place that, at first glance, appear to be unconnected. However, when reflecting on them with an open and interdisciplinary perspective, it is possible to detect links. On the one hand, the elections to the European Union (EU) Parliament, whose presidency has been ratified these days, show lights and shadows of an uncertain future. These have made clear the crisis of the traditional parties, the rise of environmental sensitivities and a clear fragmentation of the anti-European and more conservative parties.

On the other hand, some dock workers in Le Havre (France), as well as others in Genoa (Italy), went on strike and refused to load heavy weapons on a container ship, the Bahri Yanbu (from Saudi Arabia), bound for the Red Sea. These weapons would possibly be used by Saudi Arabia in the war in Yemen, especially against civilians. "It is not acceptable that the ports are closed to migrants and open to weapons", some representatives in the Italian port have repeated.

One wonders how the European Union can defend democracy and act democratically in its internal policies and, at the same time, allow the trade and transit on its territory of highly technological and "intelligent" weapons, whose destination is countries at war where they are used to kill unarmed civilians -elderly, women, children- and destroy schools, hospitals....

This problem affects all the European countries with a very active war industry, which find great business in the sale of arms in the Middle East: Italy, Spain, France, England and Holland. This is not only an ethical and political problem, related to the crisis of democracy; it is a bigger problem: the European capacity to propose a new and different foreign policy project .

In recent months, new "Arab Springs" in Sudan and Algeria are trying to demonstrate that the failure of the previous ones, due to the neglect of Western democracies and the direct or indirect intervention of Arab countries that have adopted the slogan "Change everything so that nothing changes" was not enough to stop the citizens' demand for greater dignity. Here again, Europe remains silent, and now that the Sudanese military have made diplomatic visits to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the Emirates in search of the necessary support, they have begun to act with an iron fist against the demonstrators in Khartoum.

Where is the political coherence of the European Union? Is it possible to define itself as a democratic power only when it refers to its citizens and not to its foreign policy? Where is human dignity when you work for a business that produces weapons that could kill your children, your grandparents, your parents? Clearly, it is a work that allows to obtain income to live, but not to ask these questions sample a clearly antidemocratic unconsciousness.

On the EU's Economics , defense represents a turnover of more than 156 billion euros per year (2017 data). The value of sales licenses to Saudi Arabia and Arab Emirates - the countries most involved in the war in Yemen -, was 86 billion in 2015-2016. And approximately 2 million people are employed in this sector, between direct and indirect jobs. Only a part of these figures is related to arms exports to non-democratic countries: France, for example, has Egypt as its main customer; the most relevant customers of the United Kingdom are Saudi Arabia, Oman and Indonesia; and those of Spain, Turkey and Saudi Arabia in second and third position. Italy has no democratic state among its top three buyers: the Arab Emirates, Turkey and Algeria (data from 2013-2017).

Finally, considering the data for the period 2014-2018 (Sipri), France has increased arms sales to the Middle East by 261%; Germany, by 125%; Italy, by 75%; and England, by 30%. It is precisely in this historical phase that we have experienced the repression of the Arab Spring, the political anarchy in some of these nations, as well as the external intervention of some Arab countries against others. We have also witnessed the effects of the civil war in Syria and the war in northern Iraq, the post-spring deflagration in Libya and Yemen, the repression in Egypt....

When I was in college, my professor at International Office argued idealistically that democratic countries have the ability to found democracies in other nations without the need for war. This is not possible today, and even democratic countries themselves are at risk if their democracies only function from the inside. Europe needs to show, as the dock workers have done, that democratic coherence can turn a part of the war industry into a business where rights are shared. That is to say, that the rights of European workers do not fulminate the rights of other people who, because of the effect of a war - or autocratic repression - only have the option of migrating to the European Union.