Britain and France thrash out `moral' arms code

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Britain and France, Europe's largest arms exporters, are discussing an EU-wide code of conduct for `moral' arms sales.

In the original form proposed by Britain, the code was simple enough. If any EU state refused to export weapons for moral or humanitarian reasons, all other EU countries would also refuse.

The idea has been discussed first with France, in the hope of producing a draft agreement which could be presented to other European countries during Britain's presidency of the EU in the first half of next year. If Britain and France - the second and third largest arms exporters in the world - can agree a form of words, it is expected that the others will follow easily enough.

But can Britain and France agree? The newspaper Liberation reported yesterday that the negotiations were in trouble. France was seeking to impose so many conditions that the code would become meaningless.

Both British and French sources denied this version of events. They said that detailed negotiations were in progress. Several drafts had been discussed. Both sides hoped to agree a text soon.

British officials said that the French government was being "rather co- operative". There was some difficulty in getting the various agencies of the French government involved in arms sales to take a common line. But London is still confident that an agreement will be reached early next year.

Britain and France are by far the largest arms exporters in the EU and often in competition for contracts, especially in the Middle East. In 1996, Britain exported military equipment worth $8.8bn (pounds 5.4bn) - 22.1 per cent of the world market, and France sold arms worth $5.6bn (pounds 3.7bn) - 14.1 per cent of the market. The only other EU arms exporters of a significant size are Sweden and Belgium.

Labour promised during the election campaign last April that, if it was elected, it would ban arms sales to countries with an aggressive foreign policy or poor internal human rights record. Mr Cook is anxious to ensure that such a policy does not simply export jobs from Britain to the Continent.

The idea of an EU code of conduct was discussed enthusiastically by Tony Blair, the British Prime Minister, and Lionel Jospin, the French Prime Minister, at the Franco-British summit in London last month. But the first draft submitted by Britain to French officials was rejected as too sweeping.

France wants to ensure that the definition of moral grounds for banning arms sales does not become too broad. According to Liberation, Paris fears that, once an EU code was in force, the more pacifist, non-arms producing countries, such as Denmark or Portugal, could try to impose impossibly strict conditions on all arms exports.

Paris also wants to find some way of ensuring that arms contracts refused by the EU are not simply snapped up by the United States, the world's largest arms exporter.