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How will the EU use deadly drones?

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The EU is working towards higher defence spending, greater defence capabilities, and closer military cooperation, but parliamentary oversight is not keeping up. This becomes especially clear when looking at the development and possible use of armed drones.

The EU’s defence efforts are spearheaded by the ‘Eurodrone’ project, a so-called Medium Altitude Long Endurance unmanned aerial vehicle, better known as drones,  under development by France, Germany, Italy, Spain, and the Czech Republic. The Eurodrone is a flagship project for deepening EU defence cooperation and investment, financially supported by the EU, and meant to replace the EU’s dependence on US and Israeli-imported drones. 

Military drones have proven their worth providing intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and targeting capabilities for armed force in conflicts, but also gained notoriety for their use in clandestine extrajudicial killings outside of conflict zones, including alarming numbers of civilian casualties. Without any risk of losing pilots compared to crewed aircraft, countries might be quicker to resort to the use of force, potentially escalating conflicts. And combined with a growing number of countries acquiring and using them in and outside conflict zones, drones could contribute to more insecurity. Plenty of reasons, therefore, to discuss how this weapon should, and more importantly, should not be used.

Despite the military significance, the Eurodrone has been treated by the Commission as merely an industrial initiative; a project that will save costs in the long run, help the EU’s aviation industry, and can potentially be exported, without any discussion on its actual use and contentious issues. The European Parliament has long tried to engage the EU and its Member States, repeatedly pointing out the contentious legal, political and ethical concerns and even making recommendations on a draft Common Position on the use of armed drones in 2017, which the European Council could adopt. Most recently, the European Parliament tried to connect the EU’s development of military drones to a European Council decision on the use of armed drones that upholds international human rights law and international humanitarian law. But the Council has remained silent.

By developing armed drones on a European level, but confining debates on its use to the national level, Member States have effectively separated and stymied the discussion. Questions on why armed drones are being developed, what its implications are, and what might be done to address them now remain unresolved. 

And such discussions are urgently needed. More Member States are acquiring armed drones, and many have already contributed to the US controversial targeted killing program, either through sharing data or through providing the military infrastructure. France, a leading proponent of defence initiatives both in and outside of the EU, recently carried out its first targeted killing by drone strike in Mali. The Sahel is considered to be crucial for the EU’s stability. Its vastness, porous borders, and ungoverned spaces all make the use of drones, able to fly for long periods of time, an attractive option for EU Member States to deploy drones in counter-terrorism operations.  

More broadly, the lack of strong checks and balances, and lack of debate on the potential implications of the research, development, and potential use of the Eurodrone forms part of a larger problem related to the militarisation of the EU, including similar issues of oversight and lack of sustainable solutions identified with Frontex, the European Defence Fund, and the European Peace Facility. As matters of security and defence are increasingly arranged at the EU level, effective parliamentary oversight should not be left behind. Therefore, we propose the following: 

Firstly, the European Parliament will have to work together more closely with national parliaments to improve its ability to scrutinize matters of security and defence. Member States represented in the European Council will need to engage in open discussions on the use of armed drones, set out clear policies that respect international law and international humanitarian law, and adopt a Common Position on the use of armed drones. 

Secondly, the EU will need to improve regulation and risk assessment on the export of drone technology to prevent export to unwanted end-users. France has stated the Eurodrone is specifically built for export as well and has no qualms about exporting weapons to Saudi Arabia. Limiting such proliferation is necessary, but it is also a daunting task, considering Member States struggle to enforce the EU’s current Common Position on Arms Export already.

Finally, the EU needs to look across its borders and work on strong international agreements on the use of armed drones. As many other states are now developing or acquiring them, the EU will have to set out its own vision on how they can be used. Without these measures, the EU risks cementing the dangerous precedent set by other countries that have already used drones to carry out extrajudicial killings, risk undermining international law, international security, and harming innocent lives.

The report ‘Military Drones and the EU’ was launched in the European Parliament in December, and can be downloaded here.

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