BERLIN (Reuters) - German Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel has vowed a much more cautious approach to licensing arms exports, unnerving the sizeable defense industry and signaling a change in policy from the previous coalition government under which sales rose.
German arms exports have come under scrutiny in recent years because of the increasing sums involved and because a greater number of arms are heading to non-European Union or NATO partners, and potentially unstable regions.
“Exporting weapons is no way of making economic policy ... but this view appeared to change in the last years,” Gabriel said in an interview with Bild am Sonntag newspaper on Sunday.
“If you make the wrong decision you very quickly find yourself doing business in death. I can’t undo decisions of past years ... but I can say that for all decisions I’m responsible for Germany will show much more caution. Germany has to have restrictive controls over its arms exports.”
In the first four months of this year, Germany authorized arms exports worth 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion), a slight fall on the previous year, according to the Economy Ministry.
The number of German arms exports for that period to non-EU or non-NATO countries rose by 130 million euros ($178 million) to 650 million euros.
Exports worth 97 million euros were sent to Brunei, 31 million euros to Saudi Arabia and 29 million euros to Algeria.
The Economy Ministry said most of the deals so far this year stemmed from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s 2009-2013 coalition government with the Free Democrat Liberals (FDP).
The ministry is now run by the Social Democrats (SPD) who criticized arms sales whilst in opposition. They formed a coalition with Merkel’s conservatives in late 2013.
Earlier this month German media reported Gabriel wanted to block two deals to sell arms to Qatar and Saudi Arabia worth billions of euros.
Last year German exports of small arms and light weapons, defined as portable arms such as pistols, rifles, machine guns, grenade launchers and anti-aircraft guns, hit a record 135.1 million euros, a rise of 43 percent.
Exports to the Gulf States also rose sharply.
Germany’s national security council, which includes Merkel and the ministers of economy, defense, development and foreign affairs, has to approve licences and the details of its individual decisions are not made public.
New export limits could cause lasting damage to the German defense industry, the head of the Airbus (AIR.PA) Defense and Space division, Bernhard Gerwert, said last week.
Arms sales are a highly sensitive issue in Germany because of the country’s Nazi past and the role of its arms makers in fuelling 19th and 20th century wars.
The Left party wants German arms exports banned altogether, and has been waging a campaign for more disclosure.
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Germany was the world’s third largest arms exporter from 2008-2012, behind the United States and Russia.
($1 = 0.7297 Euros)
Reporting by Alexandra Hudson and Thorsten Severin; Editing by Sophie Hares