Why is Europe obsessed with drones?

Despite the economic crisis, the EU is facing serious lobbying to boost its defence spending.

US Drones
There have been increasing calls for the EU to invest in drone technology [AFP]

Every time the West contemplates going to war, it’s a safe bet that  “defence analysts” will pop up in the press bemoaning how Europe is militarily weaker than the United States. 

Poor little France had to battle insurgents in Mali alone, earlier this year, because neighbouring countries went “missing in action“, the cognoscenti would have us believe. Before that, Europe would never have been able to topple Muammar Gaddafi in Libya without America’s generous help in 2011.  

A European Union summit in Brussels on December 19 and 20 will address how to close what some policy wonks describe as a trans-Atlantic “credibility gap“.  The 28-country bloc is under pressure from the arms industry to boost investment in drones.  If this doesn’t occur “it’s quite inevitable that the defence base will further deteriorate,” Tom Enders, head of the Franco-German weapons producer EADS has warned.

There are a few awkward questions that almost certainly won’t be asked by the presidents and prime ministers flying into the Belgian capital. Perhaps the most important taboo is why Europe should strive to copy the US.

Two days after Barack Obama made a plea for peace and justice at Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, American drones bombed a wedding convoy in Yemen. It was the latest in a litany of covert operations that have left civilians dead.

Peaceful drones?

Rather than giving a plausible reason to covet these killing machines, the EU’s decision-makers have tried to offer a distraction.  A report, drawn up for the EU summit by Catherine Ashton, the Union’s foreign policy chief, emphasises that drones can have constructive, as well as destructive, applications.  Drones can be used for disaster management, environmental protection and border surveillance, the paper suggests.   

The drowning of more than 360 Africans off the Italian island Lampedusa in October has been cynically exploited by drone devotees. In its immediate response to the tragedy, the EU’s executive, the European Commission, promoted a new maritime monitoring system called Eurosur.  Drones are among the technologies likely to be used by that project, which was planned in close cooperation with several arms manufacturers.

Listening Post – feature: Behind Dirty Wars

Efforts to depict drones as potential life-savers also evade some inconvenient facts.  One is that the primary focus of the Union’s ever-growing activities as a watchdog of the seas isn’t to rescue asylum-seekers; it is to stop asylum-seekers from entering Europe. 

Another is that the EU’s obsession with drones is helping Israel step up its oppression of the Palestinian people. Frontex, the EU’s border management agency, has been in talks with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI),over the past few years, about the possibility of using that company’s drones for tracking asylum-seekers.  The IAI is one of the main suppliers of drones to the Israeli army.  Thirty-six people, including four children, were killed by drones when Israel attacked Gaza for eight consecutive days in November 2012. 

Israel’s war industry is taking part in various other EU initiatives. In the spring, an IAI-made drone – known as the Heron – was flown in Spain during experiments held by the European Defence Agency (EDA) on launching military planes into civilian airspace.  The EDA has been formally tasked with bolstering Europe’s arms industry.

IAI and another Israeli arms manufacturer Elbit have also proven adept at soaking up grants from the EU’s multi-annual programme for scientific research.  A number of the projects involving those firms are focused on drones.

The future participation of Israeli weapons companies in the EU’s research programme has not been threatened by a row over a four-page document which received a hostile response in Israel this summer.  While that official EU document stated that firms and institutions active in Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank were not eligible to receive subsidies, it did not deal with the Union’s support for Israel’s arms industry. 

A deal thrashed out between Ashton and Tzipi Livni, the Israeli justice minister, will allow Israeli arms manufacturers to draw down funds from Horizon 2020, as the EU’s next research programme is called.

“Security” will be a major theme of that programme, which has been allocated €80bn ($110bn) between 2014 and the end of the decade.  Whenever they are quizzed about the real purpose of “security research”, EU representatives insist that it is entirely peaceful. 

With many big players in the arms industry enjoying this largesse, the demarcation lines between “military” and “civilian” appear extremely fuzzy.  Moreover, the idea of funding hardcore weapons development directly from the Union’s budget may be gathering momentum. Michel Barnier, France’s European commissioner, has explicitly called for such a step to be taken from 2020 onwards.

Boosting the defence industry

There is something quite misleading about the frequent attempts made by the “experts”  who shape the political agenda suggesting that the real objective here is to make Europe less dependent on the US.

The Union’s Lisbon treaty – which entered into force in 2009 –  states that NATO remains the “foundation” of the “collective defence” of most EU countries.  Inserting such a clause into the Union’s core rulebooks copper-fastens Europe’s status as America’s vassal.

Though NATO has always been an American-led alliance, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, its secretary-general, has strongly supported the EU’s quest for greater firepower.

So, too, have outfits with close connections to US business. Security and Defence Agency (SDA) presents itself as the only Brussels-based “think tank” dealing exclusively with military issues.  Financed by Boeing, Microsoft, Raytheon and Intel, it has urged EU leaders to display “political courage” by fostering better coordination in producing weaponry.

Giles Merritt, the SDA’s chief, is fond  of complaining that such “courage” has been lacking. More than likely, his tone is deliberately downbeat.  For EU has actually taken significant strides towards militarisation over the past decade. 

Not so long ago, arms dealers could only dream that the Union would finance drone projects. Now, that step has become a reality – without, it should be added, giving ordinary citizens any say in the matter.

Arms dealers and their lackeys are not renowned for being scrupulous.  Yet portraying the war industry as essential to the economy is contemptible, even by their low standards. The latest issue of NATO Review – the alliance’s in-house magazine – moans about how that falling military budgets means fewer jobs.

Far from being a victim of austerity, the arms industry devours resources that could be better spent. Several countries that are now in crisis increased their military expenditure dramatically during the first decade of this century: Greece by 50 percent between 2002 and 2009; Spain by 29 percent between 2000 and 2008.

Nor is the arms industry a reliable source of employment.  Official data indicates that the EU has more people working in organic agriculture than in making weapons

Admittedly, though, the merchants of death do provide lucrative jobs for one group of people: those lobbyists and “experts” who insist on keeping the debate within carefully-confined limits. By bankrolling think tanks, the arms industry can repeat the mantra that the only sensible course of action is to shower it with subsidies. 

To those benefiting directly, these subsidies make perfect sense.  To people of conscience, they are obscene.

David Cronin is the author of  Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War.  His earlier book is Europe’s Alliance With Israel: Aiding the Occupation.