New Political Forum Could Help Make EU’s Strategic Trade Controls More Strategic—If It Is Allowed To – OpEd


By Dr Mark Bromley, Dr Lucie Béraud-Sudreau and Giovanna Maletta

The past few weeks have brought fresh reports of dual-use technical components produced in the European Union being discovered in weapons deployed by Russian forces in Ukraine. EU sanctions—adopted in 2014 and progressively expanded since 2022—are supposed to prevent such items being transferred to Russia. If the reports are true, they highlight some of the persistent weaknesses in the EU’s strategic trade controls.

States use strategic trade controls to avoid exports of arms and dual-use items from falling into the wrong hands. The controls can help to prevent transfers that violate the EU sanctions imposed on Russia, impact regional stability or enable human rights abuses. The EU has plenty of these controls, but their effectiveness is limited by a lack of coordination and coherence, which also complicates intra-EU trade. 

A European Commission White Paper on Export Controls published on 24 January sets out to rectify at least some of these problems. Among its proposals is the creation of a ‘forum for political coordination on export controls’. The main focus of the White Paper is helping to ensure that EU member states act in unison when adopting new export controls, particularly those on emerging technologies. The Netherlands—which has already adopted restrictions on the export of manufacturing equipment capable of producing advanced semiconductors—has indicated its support for this objective. 

However, the proposed ‘forum for political coordination’ has the potential to achieve something far more ambitious: linking the disparate elements of the EU’s strategic trade controls framework and aligning them with its broader policy objectives.

Higher ambitions for the political forum

The EU’s framework of strategic export controls is made up of a patchwork of instruments adopted under separate legal frameworks, overseen by different institutional bodies. Further complicating matters is the fact that how these instruments are interpreted is determined at the national level, as are all efforts to detect, investigate and prosecute unauthorized transfers of military and dual-use items. Member states’ political will and technical capacity to enforce the controls are uneven. Thus, it is too easy for sensitive technologies to fall through the cracks, while member states might not trust their neighbours to enforce the controls as they would wish.

The following are some suggestions for how the forum could help to coordinate and plug the gaps in the EU’s strategic trade controls:

  1. Include controls on exports of both arms and dual-use items—It is unclear from the White Paper whether the proposed forum would only cover strategic trade controls on dual-use items or would also cover arms exports. At the EU level, export controls on arms and dual-use items are regulated by different instruments overseen by separate bodies. However, at the member-state level, the controls are often governed by the same set of regulations and ministries. It would make sense for the forum to look at both types of control, connecting the different EU processes and making it easier to identify gaps, overlaps and synergies.
  2. Include both intra- and extra-EU arms transfers—There is a similar disconnect concerning controls on arms transfers between member states and those on exports outside the EU. This hampers efforts to facilitate the co-production of new military equipment by member states, something which the EU is seeking to do with its new European Defence Industrial Strategy (EDIS). Co-production demands the transfer of military components within the EU, but such transfers are problematic if one member state is concerned that the recipient might then export the finished weapon system to an undesirable end user. The policy forum could explore how to better integrate and align the controls on intra- and extra-EU transfers and thus contribute to the implementation of the EDIS.
  3. Discuss sensitive arms export destinations—EU member states have committed to apply common standards, including international humanitarian law, when assessing their arms exports. However, the Gaza conflict has shown how complicated things can become when individual member states’ foreign and security policy interests enter the equation. EU member states disagree on supplying arms to Israel during its ongoing invasion of Gaza. Some states have opted to suspend deliveries of military materiel, while others have allowed transfers to continue. The policy forum could allow such differences to be debated and resolved at a senior political level.
  4. Discuss strengthening enforcement—The appearance of EU-manufactured dual-use items in Russian weapons highlights the need for more proactive enforcement of strategic trade controls. In 2021, the EU established an Enforcement Coordination Mechanism to bring together member state officials to exchange information on ‘the detection and prosecution of unauthorised exports of dual use items’. It also committed itself to establishing a ‘licensing and enforcement capacity-building programme’ within the EU. The policy forum could breathe new life into these efforts and focus them on enforcing the trade restrictions on Russia.

Member states strongly oppose any radical shift that would limit their final say over what arms and dual-use items they export and to whom. However, the proposed EU-level policy forum could do much good without any sacrifice of national sovereignty. The forum could connect the different parts of the EU’s strategic trade controls framework and foster agreement on sensitive issues. This would enhance the EU’s ability to achieve its strategic objectives and increase its global influence while ensuring that EU-made weapons and technologies do not end up in the wrong hands. 

About the authors:

  • Dr Mark Bromley is a Senior Researcher with the SIPRI Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme.
  • Dr Lucie Béraud-Sudreau is Director of the Military Expenditure and Arms Production Programme.
  • Giovanna Maletta is a Senior Researcher and Acting Programme Director for the Dual-Use and Arms Trade Control Programme at SIPRI.

Source: This article was published by SIPRI


SIPRI is an independent international institute dedicated to research into conflict, armaments, arms control and disarmament. Established in 1966, SIPRI provides data, analysis and recommendations, based on open sources, to policymakers, researchers, media and the interested public. Based in Stockholm, SIPRI also has a presence in Beijing, and is regularly ranked among the most respected think tanks worldwide.

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