German arms boom prompts political bust-up in Berlin

Coalition partners disagree on how restrictive German arms exports should be

Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel: says he has pulled brake on a lax arms export regime. Photograph:  EPA/Hannibal Hanschke

Social Democratic Party leader Sigmar Gabriel: says he has pulled brake on a lax arms export regime. Photograph: EPA/Hannibal Hanschke


A century after the Asgard sailed into Howth harbour with a shipment of 900 Mauser rifles, German arms are as popular as ever. Too popular, if you ask Social Democratic Party (SPD) leader Sigmar Gabriel. As economics minister he presides over all export licences for German arms and has sparked a row for demanding a more restrictive export regime.

This is no silly-season row, but follows a series of reports into the dubious, even crooked business practices of German arms companies with even the parent of the Mauser rifle company facing a probe.

The nub of the row is Germany’s arms export regime, which requires companies to file preliminary licence applications for all arms orders for export. The economics ministry gives a provisional green light but the final decision is made in secret by the federal security council chaired by the chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Since Gabriel took office last December, however, arms companies complain that more than 2,000 applications have piled up, unprocessed, in his ministry.

Public rebuke

The SPD leader says he has merely pulled the brake on a lax arms export regime under his economic ministry predecessor, from the liberal Free Democratic Party (FDP). But that has prompted a public rebuke from Horst Seehofer, governor of Bavaria where an estimated 30,000 people work in arms companies.

Seehofer, head of Merkel’s smaller sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), attacked Gabriel for trying to alter government policy with an administrative go-slow, imposing “an effective export stop without a concept or a clear compass”.

With Merkel on holiday, Gabriel attacked Seehofer for suggesting arms exports were merely a business decision, with no heed for their political and strategic ramifications. Gabriel pointed out how, early in the Crimean standoff, he banned arms giant Rheinmetall from completing a multibillion deal with Russia.

“We have to be careful we don’t deliver weapons and then, a few years later, our soldiers go to a region to calm things down and find themselves facing German weapons,” said Gabriel in a barely disguised attack on the so-called “Merkel doctrine”.

This is the name given to the German leader’s preference for training troops in foreign countries – and selling them weapons – rather than deploying German troops directly into military hotspots.

Third-largest dealer

The “Merkel Doctrine” has seen German arms exports jump 54 per cent in the last decade and, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Germany is now the world’s third- largest weapons dealer.

Last year’s arms exports rose 24 per cent on the previous year to €5.846 billion, thanks to big spenders in Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Qatar. Berlin insists it operates a “restrictive” regime, refusing orders where “sufficient suspicions” exist that weapons will be used for repression or human rights abuses. Just 71 applications – worth €10 million or 0.17 per cent of exports – were refused last year.

German arms companies have subsidiaries in third- party countries such as the US and Romania that act as go-betweens for orders from countries with which their German parents are forbidden from doing business. For instance, Germany’s Sig Sauer exported 65,000 of handguns to its US subsidiary, ostensibly for the domestic market. Its export licence was revoked after a German media report exposed how the guns turned up with the police in Columbia – a country on Berlin’s sanction list. A similar deal allegedly took place in Kazakhstan.

Despite their public row, Gabriel and Seehofer say they agree on one thing: it’s time for Germany to have a debate about this matter.

For Seehofer, it’s about German jobs. For Gabriel, it’s about how Germany shifted from its “never again war” maxim to become an arms giant. “If we aren’t careful,” warned the SPD leader, “we could find ourselves in the business of death.”