Commission fires first shot in battle over arms imports

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Series Details Vol.8, No.33, 19.9.02, p1-2
Publication Date 19/09/2002
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Date: 19/09/02

By Simon Coss

EU GOVERNMENTS have launched a round of desperate behind-the-scenes negotiations in a bid to prevent the European Commission taking them to the Court of Justice for refusing to pay duties on weapons imports.

The Commission has sent warning letters to 12 member states - all except Austria, France and Ireland - stating that it will proceed with legal action unless a solution to the problem can be found.

'Most of the money from customs duties is paid into the EU budget and we have an obligation to protect both Union funds and ensure that the law is being respected,' Commission spokesman Jonathan Todd told European Voice.

'We're talking about some quite considerable sums of money here. A fighter plane costs rather more than a pair of boots,' he added.

Weapons imports are always a sensitive issue, but perhaps even more so at present given the possibility of military action against Iraq in the coming months.

EU customs experts met on Monday (16 September) to discuss how to avoid a high-profile legal showdown.

On the table was a classified document drawn up by the Danish presidency, which calls on EU governments to pass a regulation 'temporarily suspending import duties on certain weapons and military equipment'.

European Voice has seen a copy of the plan and the Danes are suggesting that governments draw up an extensive list of weapons and military equipment that could be exempt from the duties.

The provisional list details a veritable arsenal including tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles, bombs, grenades, torpedoes, mines and 'similar weapons of war'. Also included are radio apparatus for the remote control of missiles, jamming and anti-jamming equipment, radar, cryptographic equipment and parachutes. Exemptions are even sought for camouflage netting.

The Commission has been trying to clarify the EU's murky rules on arms imports since 1988, when it put forward a proposal calling for a temporary suspension of duties similar to the Danish plan.

The EU's founding treaties contain clauses on national security, which would seem to allow governments to import some military equipment without paying duty.

But the Commission complained that many EU member states abused this privilege. 'We didn't believe they should be using the treaty provisions as a kind of catch-all clause to get out of paying duty on all military equipment,' said Todd.

One of the biggest problems arises when governments import so-called 'dual use' equipment, that is goods that could be used either for military or civilian ends. Flight training simulators can fall into this category, for example.

EU officials say the main difference between the Danish plan and the Commission's original proposal is that the Danes have drawn up a much more detailed list of duty-free military products. 'The Commission only referred to groups of products,' said one insider.

Customs experts say that EU governments' reluctance to pay duty on military imports has as much to do with security concerns as trying to save money.

'I would guess that governments don't want all that information floating around when it comes to these sorts of sensitive questions,' said one. Todd indicated that the Commission would be prepared to drop its original proposal if it was satisfied that the Danes could come up with a compromise that respected the spirit of its 1988 text.

But the EU executive would not agree to any rules that let the member states avoid duties on weapons already purchased, he insisted. The Danes say they want to resolve the issue by the end of the year.

EU High Representative Javier Solana was due to hold talks in Washington last night with US Vice-President Dick Cheney and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. High on the agenda was Iraq.

Solana earlier met Secretary of State Colin Powell, Russian Foreign Minster Igor Ivanov and United Nations secretary-general Kofi Annan. He also held talks with leading opinion-formers at the Brookings Institution and Council for Foreign Relations think-tanks. His spokesman, Christina Gallach, said Solana would urge the American administration to 'exhaust all remedies' through the UN before considering military action against Saddam Hussein.

However, he would endorse the view of member states that the Iraqi leader's '11th-hour communique' to allow UN arms inspectors into the country must be 'without conditions'.

Solana would also stress that finding a solution to the Middle East conflict should also be a priority.

Meanwhile, John Wolf, assistant secretary for the bureau of non-proliferation in the US State Department, was in Brussels on Tuesday to brief EU ambassadors to the Political and Security Committee and their NATO equivalents.

Although not focusing exclusively on Iraq, he said the arms inspections would have to be 'thorough, immediate, unconditional, unrestricted' and 'with access anywhere'. NATO defence ministers are due to meet in Warsaw on Tuesday (24 September).

  • Christina Gallach will be unable to accompany Solana on diplomatic trips for the next few weeks after breaking her leg during a visit to Macedonia.

The European Commission has sent warning letters to 12 Member States stating that it will take legal action against them for refusing to pay duties on weapons imports.

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