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European weapons embargo against Saudi Arabia unlikely

The reaction of EU and its Member States to the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul is characterised by a careful balance between interests and values. EU is demanding an investigation of the murder while avoiding any talk about possible sanctions. Some member states, such as UK, France and Germany, have issued strong condemnations of the murder but the common EU position, as expressed by foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, tends to be softer. In her speech on Tuesday in the European Parliament in Strasbourg – partly an obituary in memory of Khashoggi who had visited Brussels just a few months ago – she said that EU is waiting for the Saudi investigation before deciding on any measures.

Such an investigation should be “full, credible, transparent and prompt”, Mogherini said. She admitted that the explanations offered so far by the Saudi authorities leave “many doubts and many questions unanswered”. If this is the case, an independent international investigation is more required. In the meantime EUs role seems limited to monitoring the case and coordinating “appropriate action”.

Sanctions in the form of a weapons embargo against Saudi Arabia would be a possible action, not so much because of the killing of a journalist but because of the on-going air strikes since 2015 against Yemen, ordered by the same crown prince who also is suspected of being behind the assassination. The strikes have resulted in the death of thousands of civilians and the starving of millions of people in the worst humanitarian crisis in modern times.

“The best way we have to honour his (Khashoggi’s) memory is to be firm and determined in asking for the truth and working for the truth,” Mogherini said. “Not only for the truth, also for accountability which is different, both from scapegoating and from revenge.” Asked by The Brussels Times at a press briefing yesterday (25 October) about what Mogherini meant, her spokesperson replied that it could be interpreted in different ways but that Mogherini had been clear.

As regards the issue of a weapons embargo, based on a common Council position that was adopted in 2008 concerning criteria for arms export, she explained that the decision was binding on Member States but that the implementation was their responsibility. Until now only Germany has indicated any willingness to impose a ban on export of weapons to Saudi Arabia. Member states are only prevented from exporting arms to countries subject to an international arms embargo by UN or EU and such embargos are normally respected.

A source in the Council told the Brussels Times that France was opposing such an embargo and that most EU countries would prefer to continue to do business with Saudi-Arabia, notwithstanding the fact that EU, contrary to the US, does not need Saudi Arabia for an alliance against Iran.

As a matter of fact, last Thursday (25 October) the European Parliament adopted a resolution on the killing of Jamal Khashoggi. It calls for an independent and impartial international investigation into the circumstances of his death and, furthermore, calls on the Council to reach a common position in order to impose an EU-wide arms embargo on Saudi Arabia.

In the past, in December 2015, the European Parliament adopted a report on the implementation of the “Common Position” on arms exports and called on the member states to apply the criteria more rigorously. Already in February 2016 the Parliament called for an EU arms embargo to be imposed against Saudi Arabia because of its bombing campaign in Yemen.

Last time a member state antagonized Saudi Arabia it did not end well for the member state. In 2015, Swedish foreign minister Margit Wallström criticized openly Saudi Arabia for its human rights record and cancelled an arms contract. The Saudis reacted angrily. The Swedish king was asked by the government to intervene and send a letter of apology to his Saudi Arabian counterpart. Wallström’s prepared speech at an Arab League meeting in Cairo was cancelled and she was forced to leave Cairo without accomplishing her task.

M. Apelblat
The Brussels Times