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Comment & analysis

Will Brexit lower arms transfer control standards?

6 July 2017 Elizabeth Kirkham

As with many aspects of UK political, social and economic life, Brexit is likely to impact on the rules governing UK arms and dual-use transfers, risking a reduction in UK influence over partners, and a possible undermining of human rights and a rules-based international system. 

The UK is already more than three months into the two-year negotiation on its departure from the EU. The ultimate shape of Brexit is unclear, but as things stand the UK Government plans to repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and replace all directly applicable EU legislation with UK laws.  While this may sound straightforward, for arms transfer controls, as for many other areas, it is a complex process that touches multiple jurisdictions and competencies. A new Saferworld report – Brexit and the future of UK arms transfer controls – outlines the implications of Brexit for UK arms and dual-use transfer controls and recommends priorities for the UK Government to avoid weakening the UK and EU regulatory regimes.

The UK – one of the largest arms exporters in the world – has played a leading role in creating the current system which has raised formal EU standards to among the highest in the world for conventional arms transfers and introduced an extensive system for controlling dual-use goods and technologies. Today’s system of arms and dual-use transfer controls in the UK is intimately linked to those of its EU partners.  Decisions as to which weapons and technologies to control, the rules for permitting or refusing transfers, the use of sanctions and embargoes, efforts to stop the trade in torture and death-penalty equipment, and regulating the cross-border movement of firearms are all managed through a combination of UK law and EU instruments that aim to ensure UK and EU-sourced arms do not fuel violent conflict, international crime or contribute to human rights violations.

The UK Government has already declared its intention to introduce a ‘Repeal Bill’ which will effectively import the current system wholesale.  As a statement of intent this is reassuring, however in the field of arms and dual-use transfer controls this task is complicated by the myriad information exchange and coordination structures that form an integral part of the EU Regulations. Any requirement to amend or introduce primary legislation in the UK should be agreed by Parliament as usual, while any attempt to introduce substantive change through secondary legislation must be highlighted in advance, with Parliament and other stakeholders given the opportunity to respond. On a positive note, the government has already consulted on the adoption of new primary sanctions legislation; it is vital that all other Brexit-related legislative changes are also undertaken in a fully transparent manner. 

The cooperative structures within the EU Regulations – including systems of information exchange, consultation and coordination groups – allow Member States to discuss policy and implementation issues and help to encourage the common approach that underpins all EU instruments in this field. At the same time, wider cooperation among security and intelligence agencies helps to ensure that arms controls are targeted and effectively enforced, preventing arms falling into the hands of criminals and repressive regimes. The UK should aim for continued involvement in these valuable mechanisms; a constructive approach in negotiations will be necessary if a fruitful collaborative relationship is to be sustained post-Brexit.

Worryingly, a breakdown in EU cooperation could reinforce unwelcome changes in the UK’s approach to trade in arms with non-EU states, including those in regions of conflict and human rights crisis. For example, since 2015, the UK Government has agreed to supply a range of military goods, including aircraft and their munitions to Saudi Arabia, despite a clear risk that such equipment will be used in violations of international humanitarian law in the Yemen conflict. Recent Government delegations to Saudi Arabia and Turkey, for example, have openly engaged in arms export promotion as the UK seeks to maintain and develop markets post-Brexit. Concerns exist that, under increased pressure to build new relationships and maximise export revenue, such practice may become more common and the UK Government’s commitment to rigorous arms transfer controls may be further weakened.

It is crucial that the UK does not turn its back on a legacy of its own creation. Post-Brexit the UK Government must work as closely as possible with the EU27 on arms and dual-use transfer controls, ensuring that UK and EU rules continue to reflect best international practice.  As a first step in this direction, the UK should announce its intention to formally align to the EU Common Position on arms exports post-Brexit, while the EU should invite the UK to continue its participation in all relevant information exchange and consultation mechanisms.  Within the context of a potentially difficult overarching negotiation, these would serve as useful early indicators that the UK and the EU27 can and will continue as partners in efforts to prevent the proliferation and misuse of arms and dual-use goods around the world.

Read the report Brexit and the future of UK arms transfer controls.

Read more about our work on effective arms control.