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Germany’s ban on arms exports to Saudi Arabia after Khashoggi’s killing is having a bigger impact than expected

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/19/2019 Rick Noack
A Saudi F-15 jet lands at the Khamis Mushayt military airbase, some 550 miles from the capital Riyadh, as the Saudi army conducts operations over Yemen on Nov. 16, 2015. © Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images A Saudi F-15 jet lands at the Khamis Mushayt military airbase, some 550 miles from the capital Riyadh, as the Saudi army conducts operations over Yemen on Nov. 16, 2015.

When German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced in October that her coalition government would halt all arms equipment exports to its second-biggest customer, Saudi Arabia, the move instantly put pressure on other major exporters to do the same. The German ban came amid outrage over the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which the CIA later assessed was ordered by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman.

Human rights activists applauded Germany for setting an international example at the time. But to critics, the German decision still appeared mostly symbolic, given that its exports to the kingdom were dwarfed by the United States, Britain and France in recent years.

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None of those countries subsequently decided to join the Germans, but almost six months on, the fallout is now being felt in some of those places, too. Concerns in Britain and France are mounting that the German ban could have a severe impact on arms equipment exports to Saudi Arabia from other European nations. Representatives for Britain’s key weapons company, BAE Systems, have acknowledged concerns over their future access to crucial parts of Eurofighter Typhoon planes, which are partially produced in Germany. The exports ban has also affected air-to-air missiles for those jets, produced by a joint venture that is partially owned by European aerospace company Airbus, of which Germany is a shareholder.

When the Merkel government banned sales to the kingdom last year, it not only excluded fully assembled products such as ships, but also high-tech components used by companies across Europe. Germany may have recently reduced its overall arms exports, but it remains a European hub for such high-tech components.

The supply chain disruptions triggered a scathing response from Airbus Chief Executive Thomas Enders, who told Reuters last week: “It has been driving us crazy at Airbus for years that when there is even just a tiny German part involved in, for example, helicopters, the German side gives itself the right to, for example, block the sale of a French helicopter."

To human rights critics, that’s exactly the point, however, as there isn’t an easy way out for the Saudis. When the Saudis agreed to purchase over 70 European fighter jets about a decade ago, they not only bought the planes but also an entire package that includes training for pilots and long-term maintenance. To maintain the planes, BAE Systems has to replace components it now no longer has easy access to.

“We’ll soon get to the point where the Saudis can’t fly their planes any more,” the London-based Financial Times quoted an unnamed source as saying Monday.

With its ongoing intervention in Yemen, the supply woes may be coming at a sensitive time, but the same applies to its European business partners. With only about one month left before Britain is set to leave the European Union, the spat between London and Berlin is shaping up to be yet another point of contention. A no-deal Brexit could disrupt supply chains –– such as BAE Systems’ –– to a far greater extent than a German arms exports ban ever could.

To E.U. supporters, BAE Systems’ woes are highlighting the need to preserve trade ties after Brexit. But to opponents of the European Union, the German ban and its ripple effects across the continent are appearing to prove the opposite. As long as Europe cannot agree on issues such as joint arms exports frameworks, they say, the union remains a deeply flawed experiment at uniting vastly different nation states.

This concern is in fact not exclusively shared by opponents of the European Union.

Amid the fallout of the German exports ban to Saudi Arabia, Merkel and her French counterpart, Emmanuel Macron, have embarked on a joint effort to develop a framework for European arms exports, which would hold all members to certain standards in approving sales abroad. So far, lawmakers of E.U. member states make those decisions based on their own criteria.

“If we don’t have a common culture of arms exports in Europe, then the development of joint weapon systems is in jeopardy,” Merkel said during the Munich Security Conference last weekend.

Europe increasingly appears to agree that a joint strategy is needed to compete with the United States and other arms producers. The far more consequential question is which approach will prevail: Germany’s responsiveness to human rights criticism –– or the more lucrative alternative pursued by Britain, France and others.

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