Weapons for peace? What to expect in 2021 from the EU’s new ‘peace facility’

11 January 2021 Roy Isbister and Frank Slijper  Weapons for peace?  What to expect in 2021 from the EU’s new ‘peace facility’

A version of this blog piece was originally published in the Forum on the Arms Trade.

This is the fourth blog post in a series looking at an array of issues in 2021 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.

Just before the close of 2020, EU member states’ foreign ministries reached agreement over the set-up of the European Peace Facility (EPF) to pay for "external action having military or defence implications". It is meant to "swiftly respond to crises and conflicts" and "to empower partner countries". Its initial focus is expected to be on Africa, however its potential reach is global. While only half the size of its original ask (due to some nervousness about the basic concept and larger budgetary constraints), the EPF still provides for € 5 billion to be spent over the next seven years, including on controversial ‘train and equip’ packages. By establishing this as an ‘off-budget’ facility, member states are circumventing EU treaties under which the EU budget cannot be used to provide arms. The type of arms envisaged as being suitable for transfer under the EPF include those frequently causing the most harm and most at risk of misuse and diversion in fragile contexts, such as small arms and light weapons (SALW) and their ammunition, armoured vehicles, etc.
Civil society organisations, including ours, have long argued against the EPF, as recent history suggests that providing weapons and ammunition to security forces in fragile states is more likely to exacerbate than solve local and regional conflicts. As we argued, along with 12 other organisations in a 2019 letter to the EU foreign policy chief, and in a November 2020 statement from 40 civil society organisations from around the world, we have seen little evidence that military-focused ‘train and equip’ efforts lead to improved peace, justice, and development outcomes. On the contrary, experience demonstrates that this type of military assistance can harm peace and development and rarely provides its intended leverage. It often fails to address the underlying drivers of conflict and can instead be counterproductive, leading to unintended consequences, such as the violent repression of peaceful civil society actions, furthering the impunity of military forces, fomenting military-backed violence and conflict, and corruption.
The initial focus of the EPF is likely to be in Africa, possibly in the Sahel, where Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger have set up a joint force known as the G5 with 5,000 troops to confront jihadists. Somalia and the Central African Republic have also been mentioned as potential beneficiaries.
Whereas German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas calls the EPF “a fundamental investment in peace and stability that will allow the EU and its partners to effectively and flexibly address international crises”, there is reason to be wary that the EPF will be used to advance the interests of EU member states more than and potentially at the expense of the security of the people affected by crises. Time and again we have seen examples of military aid transferred to further European geopolitical interests rather than in support of the human security needs of people in fragile states.
Recent statements by key European figures strengthen such fears. Speaking about the EPF in February 2020, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell stated: "We need guns, we need arms, we need military capacities and that is what we are going to help provide to our African friends because their security is our security. […] We are not going to grow, we are not going to invest, we are not going to create jobs without stability". In December 2020, President Emmanuel Macron of France (which has been a leading proponent of the EPF) said in a joint press conference with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that he “will not condition matters of defence and economic cooperation on ... disagreements (over human rights).” While this was not in the direct context of the EPF, it nevertheless raises obvious and significant concerns about how the EPF will be used.
Beyond its fundamental conceptual failings, the EPF as it stands now also has numerous operational shortcomings. These include a lack of transparency, both in decision-making as well as public reporting; weak and permissive safeguards against ‘misuse’; a lack of meaningful involvement of local people affected by crises and insecurity (in support of whom EPF actions will ostensibly be undertaken), at any point in the process; and a weak due-diligence framework to ensure the Facility’s activities are conducted in accordance with international law.
Instead of establishing a strong framework of safeguards within the EPF itself to pritoritise the protection of civilians and their rights, member states have instead chosen to push decisions on these matters downstream, such that they will be decided politically for each assistance measure under the Facility. This means that maintaining high standards on arms transfers, strict application of international law and effective oversight will be vulnerable to political pressure and excessive secrecy.
The unresolved weaknesses of the EPF are risking the EU’s self-styled reputation as a force for good. However, little resistance to its adoption is expected from either the European Parliament or national parliaments, if they have a say at all. Therefore, as so often, it seems it will fall to civil society to hold member states to account.

Photo: Inauguration of the new parliamentary term. Credit: CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2019 – Source: EP.