Germany risks harming industry with unilateral arms embargoes: minister

BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany risks harming its defense industry with unilateral arms embargoes, such as the one imposed on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, Economy Minister Peter Altmaier said on Thursday, underscoring the need for a common European policy.

German Economy Minister Peter Altmaier presents the national industry strategy for 2030 during a news conference in Berlin, Germany, February 5, 2019. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

Speaking at a conference on export controls, Altmaier said Germany had extended through the end of March a freeze in shipments of already approved arms to Riyadh after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi operatives last October.

He declined to predict whether any of those deals would be allowed to proceed, noting Germany’s coalition government parties were wrestling with the issue.

Germany’s unilateral decision on Saudi arms sales has exacerbated long-standing differences over arms controls between Berlin and its European partners. Berlin is under pressure from industry and European allies to ease the embargo.

The move has called into question billions of euros of military orders, including a 10 billion pound ($13 billion) deal to sell 48 Eurofighter Typhoon jets to Riyadh.

Germany’s ruling coalition is deeply divided on the issue, with the Social Democrats, junior partners to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives, reluctant to alienate voters who are generally skeptical about arms sales and military spending.

Altmaier, a conservative, said it was important to stick to language on arms export controls agreed by the coalition parties last year, including a strict approach on exports of small arms.

But he said there was some room for maneuver in interpreting other parts of the coalition accord, including a clause that offers protections for previously agreed deals and another that bans arms sales to any parties to the war in Yemen.

The SPD argues the ban should apply to Saudi Arabia, which is leading a coalition fighting the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, but others say some of the weapons now held up are purely defensive in nature or are not relevant to the Yemen war.

Altmaier said he had argued unsuccessfully after Khashoggi’s death for Germany to push for a joint European position on arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

He said France and Germany were now working on a bilateral agreement on future arms exports, but some aspects of that effort were proving difficult to finalize.

He said a joint export policy was essential to ensure the economic success of joint development programs such as a new combat jet.

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Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Michael Nienaber and Mark Potter