It is often said that the European Union is the most successful peace project in the world. Those arguing the case will point to the centuries of war that preceded its founding and the relative peace that has followed. There are many times when that claim has been severely tested, with European governments playing a central role in fuelling global conflict while pursuing repressive anti-refugee policies that have punished people escaping war.
This week, the EU’s reputation for peace-building has come under further question, with the European parliament overwhelmingly voting to finalise the funding for a European Defence Fund. The fund commits €13 billion over a seven-year period to the collective research and development of “cutting-edge” weapons and military technology. The concept of the fund was announced by the European commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, in 2016 and backed by the European council later that year. A handful of pilot projects were launched in 2017, with a total of €590 million committed for funding. The scale of the projects and spending will be totally eclipsed by this week’s increase.
This week’s proposal specifically mentioned ‘disruptive technologies' as a focus
This is not the “European army” that has become a familiar scare story among anti-EU campaigners. The pilot projects have a particular focus on unmanned and autonomous systems. This week’s proposal specifically mentioned “disruptive technologies” as a focus. These are defined as weapons or technologies that “can radically change the concepts and conduct of” war. This means that EU public money could help pave the way for new controversial military technology such as artificial intelligence and drones.
It’s no surprise that arms dealers have welcomed it. Their influence has been there right from the start. In fact, the advisory group (known as a “group of personalities”) that initially developed the policy was made up of 16 members, seven of whom worked for arms companies. This included CEOs and senior personnel.
Effectively, the arms industry was brought in to advise the EU on military strategy and told it that what was needed was more military spending. Were they ever going to say otherwise? The whole process raises serious questions about transparency, with six of the companies that have already benefited from pilot projects having had members on the group.
There has been little explanation for where the money will come from. Will it mean cutting €13bn from other budgets? What would be cut in order to fund it? There is also very little explanation of how it will be spent or what checks and balances will be in place to stop it becoming a blank cheque for arms companies.
With the UK set to leave the EU, it might feel tempting for UK-based activists to see it as not their problem. However, this would be to ignore the global nature of the arms industry. The EU includes some of the biggest arms exporting governments in the world, and the weapons being developed with huge public subsidies could be exported and used in wars and abuses for years to come.
The UK’s long-term role in the project is still to be confirmed, but the political declaration negotiated by Theresa May would see the UK continuing to contribute to the fund and UK-based arms companies profiting from it. It seems likely that any future deal negotiated by this government would seek to do the same. Westminster might be moving away from political union, but that doesn’t mean the military ties will be reduced.
There is no question that international security needs an international response. Countries in Europe should be cooperating and investing in jobs and research projects that promote sustainable industries and contribute to conflict resolution. This week, 1,000 scientists, academics and researchers wrote to MEPs, urging them to oppose the fund. They argue that the EU should focus resources on tackling the root causes of conflict instead of funding military research.
Underpinning the opposition is the much broader and more important question of what kind of Europe we want. Regardless of the outcomes of Brexit, this is something that will affect all of us. It’s not just the UK that’s at a crossroads – it’s the whole continent. If these changes become embedded they will be very hard to reverse. If the EU really is the most successful peace project in the world, then it needs to invest in people and peace-building, not arms sales, militarism and war.
• Andrew Smith is a spokesperson for Campaign Against Arms Trade. You can follow CAAT at @CAATuk.