Germany’s Unchecked Arms Exports: Does Morality Matter?

January 24, 2022

Morality and political ethics are only of discursive value and perhaps even a weapon to use against others.
A group of people gather in front of German parliament (Bundestag) holding banners during a demonstration to protest against arms export policy of the government, on February 26, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Abdulhamid, Hosbas, Anadolu Images

Shortly before officially handing over her office to Olaf Scholz, former German chancellor Angela Merkel approved an arms deal that caused much criticism. Since the start of the year and by November 29, 2021, Germany had exported weapons and armaments worth €0.18 billion. With the approval of the arms deal shortly before the government change, the value of arms exports rose to €9.04 billion which means that Germany broke its 2019 record of €8.015 billion worth of arms exports.

Furthermore, Germany exported 65.8 percent of its arms and armaments to third countries (non-EU states) in 2021. Last year, the percentage of arms exports to third countries was 50.1; €1.6 billion worth of arms exports were reported to have been exported to EU countries, and €1.5 billion to NATO members and states on an equal level with the alliance. While €4 billion worth of weapons were exported, €5 billion worth of military equipment was exported.

The export of military equipment worth €4.34 billion to Egypt was approved. This means that almost half of the approved arms deals were destined for Egypt, making it by far the largest destination for German arms exports. It was announced that the export of three warships and 16 air defense systems to Egypt was approved on December 7, 2021.

Criticism from the left spectrum

The approved arms deals were criticized by the German Left Party and the Greens. Statistics on German arms exports from 2021 were published by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action upon the request of Left Party politician Sevim Dağdelen. Dağdelen criticized Chancellor Scholz and the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) based on the statistics records.

The German government is preparing to set certain criteria for approving and rejecting arms export deals.

The SPD was in government with the CDU (Christian Democratic Union of Germany) for the last two legislative terms (2013-2021). Dağdelen criticized the fact that despite the arms exports to dictatorships, the SPD did not have to face any consequences and even won the election, and called Scholz a “crook” (Gaunerstück).

The Greens are now in government and are mainly responsible for arms exports. They, too, criticized Merkel’s approved arms deals. In response, Minister of Foreign Affairs Annalena Baerbock announced that the German government wants to control arms exports better in the future. To this end, the German government is preparing to set certain criteria for approving and rejecting arms export deals.

Baerbock added that arms exports should not only be considered economically, but that it is also a question of “foreign policy, human rights and international relations.” The Minister of Foreign Affairs further explained that the German government would like to establish a common arms export control mechanism at the European level. If put into practice, then France in particular would be affected badly by this mechanism, as the country has no strict criteria for the export of arms.

The CDU defends the arms deals while the SPD remains silent

CDU foreign policy expert Roderich Kiesenwetter defended the arms deals by saying that the federal government had concluded the deal ..within the existing legal framework. Kiesenwetter described the criticism from the Left Party and the Greens as “crocodile tears.” Furthermore, Kiesenwetter said that arms exports to countries outside the EU is a matter of national interest, otherwise third countries would import weapons from China or Russia. Arms exports, especially to the Middle East, would therefore be an important part of German security policy.

The SPD remains mostly silent, as they were also part of the government in the last two legislative terms and approved the previous arms deals. The current chancellor, Olaf Scholz, is under criticism, as he was vice-chancellor and finance minister under Merkel. The Federal Security Council, made of seven ministers, including the finance minister, examines German arms exports. That is why Chancellor Scholz’s stance on this sensitive issue is all the more important.

“Traffic light coalition” must maintain its credibility

After the arms deal was announced, the current German government is under pressure. It is expected that especially the SPD and the Greens will not view the decision of German arms exports the same way. The SPD sees Germany as a trading state and wants to continue with arms exports without any restrictions, as it is one of the country’s most important sources of revenue. The Greens, on the other hand, want to review arms export deals in light of human rights issues. It is a matter of question now whether realpolitik or value-based politics will win.

In May 2021, the current minister of economic affairs and climate action and Green politician Robert Habeck said that the German government should supply weapons to Ukraine.

Interestingly, statements by the Greens and their actual position do not match in some cases. In May 2021, the current minister of economic affairs and climate action and Green politician Robert Habeck said that the German government should supply weapons to Ukraine. Habeck’s statement contradicted those of Baerbock, who is against arms deliveries to Ukraine.

The Greens are under pressure mainly because, as a party, they are a pacifist one; however, their credibility was lost after the Kosovo War in 1999. At that time, the Greens were in government and were responsible for Germany becoming actively involved in a war for the first time since World War II. Then, realpolitik had prevailed over value-based politics.

Double standards?

Germany’s approved arms deals to third countries where human rights are violated shows a lack of credibility. While Germany and France outwardly pioneer defending human rights, they cause further human rights violations by allowing arms exports to dictatorships. Morality and political ethics are only of discursive value, with no essential value – and perhaps even a weapon to use against “others.”

Statements by CDU politician Kiesenwetter about the competition with China and Russia summarize this paradox quite well, showing that moral values are only important in domestic politics, but in international affairs, Germany acts no differently than authoritarian regimes like the aforementioned two countries.

The silence of the SPD and Olaf Scholz illustrate that the German federal government wants to continue this policy. The Greens will appear to oppose it in their statements; however, their lack of credibility and effectiveness will impede them from having any  real say on the issue. In the end, it seems highly likely that Germany will continue its current unchecked policy of arms exports.

Yunus Mazı obtained his master’s degree in European and international affairs at the Turkish-German University. He is currently a researcher in the field of lobbyism, diaspora, and transnationalism.