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09 Dec 04. THE European Union yesterday told China that it will work towards lifting its 15-year embargo on arms exports, even though agreement is being held up by a dispute between France and the rest of Europe on how to control sales after the ban is ended. France is opposing a proposed code of conduct that would require EU countries to declare what sort of military equipment they are selling to China for three years after the ban is lifted.

All 25 EU countries have agreed in principle to open up sales of military equipment to China, now the EU’s second largest trading partner. The EU and China issued a joint statement after a short summit in the Hague yesterday, stating: “The EU side confirmed its political will to continue to work towards lifting the embargo …the Chinese side welcomed the positive signal.”

However, the EU indicated that there would be no immediate lifting of the ban, because EU countries cannot agree on which conditions to attach. Britain and Sweden are particularly keen to ensure that China proves it has done more to reduce human rights abuses before sales restart.

The biggest hurdle is the failure to reach agreement in Europe about a code of conduct for arms exports, which would aim to prevent an uncontrolled arms sales bonanza to China as soon as the ban is lifted.

Even with the embargo, the EU sold €210m (£147m) of military equipment to China in 2002, of which half was sold by France, which does not declare what sort of equipment it is selling. In contrast, Britain, which publishes a detailed annual report of arms sales, has admitted selling components of combat aircraft to China, which are not covered by the ban, even though the sale of whole combat aircraft is banned.
EU countries agree that the current code of conduct on arms sales outside the Union, which came into force in 1998, is far too weak and needs to be strengthened. The existing code insists that there must be no sale of arms that could be used for internal oppression, or to fuel an existing regional conflict. However, it is voluntary and countries need only to declare the value of sales, not what they have sold, as well as whether they have refused to sell certain goods to other countries.

EU governments are negotiating a code of conduct that would require a three-year transition period after an embargo is lifted. During this time EU countries would have to tell each other what military equipment they have sold, and set out what national policy they are adopting on arms sales to that country. One EU diplomat said: “France is blocking progress on the whole package. They hate the idea of transparency.”

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