An ill wind: How the sale of Mistral warships to Russia is undermining EU arms transfer controls

In 2011 France agreed a contract to supply Russia with two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships - the first major arms sale to Russia by a NATO state. Controversial at the time it was agreed, the recent deterioration in relations with Russia because of the Ukrainian crisis has returned the Mistral sale to the spotlight, with forthright opposition to the deal from around the European Union (EU). Until recently France has appeared determined to proceed.  Even the EU arms embargo on Russia, introduced on 31 July 2014, failed to prevent the sale, exempting as it does pre-existing deals.

Notably absent from the Mistrals debate has been reference to the foundation stone of the EU arms transfer control system, the legally binding EU Common Position 2008/944/CFSP, even among those in the EU who oppose the deal.

An Ill Wind argues that the sale of the Mistrals raises serious questions about the way the EU system works in practice, with Member States undermining the basic credibility of the EU system, as well as broader credibility of the EU, when promoting a law-based system of arms transfer controls internationally.

This briefing makes a series of recommendations with regard to the specifics of the Mistral sale to Russia and to the longer term, more general EU arms transfer control policies and practices:

  • France should explicitly apply the EU Common Position to the deal and either justify or cancel it in this context.
  • Parliaments in France and other EU Member States should question their respective governments regarding their positions on the sale, again in the context of the Common Position.
  • Member States should apply arms and dual-use embargoes as a matter of course to contracts agreed before an embargo is put in place.
  • Member States should recommit to apply the Common Position to all export licensing decisions, regardless of the nature or scale of the proposed transfer, and also to ensure that debates about arms exports and individual licensing decisions are cast in terms that reference and reflect their legal obligations.

The briefing is also available in French, Au vent mauvais.

“EU Member States may have been almost universally opposed to the Mistral deal since its inception, yet they have virtually without fail avoided discussing the sale in the context of their legal obligation to apply the EU Common Position to all proposed arms exports.”

Saferworld and GRIP