French threat to European arms sales code

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OPPOSITION from France is threatening to undermine the European Union-wide code of conduct on conventional arms sales, which EU foreign ministers are hoping to finalise at a meeting in Brussels today.

The proposed EU guidelines, pressed by Britain which last year brought in its own amended rules for weapons exports, are an attempt to ensure what the code's final draft calls "high common standards" for controlling the transfer of arms. They would impose greater transparency in a field where secrecy and financial self-interest have all too often been the norm.

That, however, will be easier said than done. Four key criteria, on which the effectiveness of the code will depend, remain to be settled: the strength of the human rights guidelines; requirements for consultation among EU countries; whether they should be forced to publish annual reports of sales; and - most important of all - just how binding the code should be.

On at least two of the points, France appears to be in a minority of one. Paris is said to be resisting a requirement that when one country wants to go ahead with a sale that another has refused, it should consult only with the latter, rather than all other 14 EU members. This, say human rights campaigners, would allow countries to undercut each other with impunity.

France also opposes the annual publication by all countries of full and detailed reports of their arms dealings.