After Egypt and Syria, there's never been a worse time to host an arms fair

Next week London hosts the world’s largest arms fair, the "Defence Security Equipment International" (DSEi) exhibition, organised with the help of the British government and part-subsidised by the UK taxpayer.

Events over the past month have dramatically illustrated the true nature of military power in the world today: not, for the most part, a means of self-defence, but a tool of internal repression and external power projection.

In Egypt, having toppled the elected president in July, the new military government moved to eradicate the political opposition, arresting its leaders and murdering hundreds of activists during a few days in August. In Syria, the armed forces of a regime with deep roots in the military appear to have used chemical weapons on civilians in rebel-held areas, again killing hundreds. In Western capitals, cruise missile strikes are threatened against Syria for reasons that clearly have nothing to do with self-defence, nothing to do with humanitarian principle (witness the continued, substantive support for the junta in Cairo), and everything to do with a geopolitical game being played with the lives of the Syrian people.

Britain’s place at the heart of global militarism is well established. It is a member of the elite club of nuclear states, spends more on “defence” by proportion of GDP than most developed nations, regularly involves itself in armed conflicts abroad, and holds perhaps 15 per cent of the global market in arms dealing, second only to the United States and ahead of Russia and France. In terms of exports, recent revelations that the UK allowed the sale of chemical precursors to Syria highlight the degree of commercial cynicism at work. But often, as one would expect from an industry largely dependent on the nanny state, political concerns shape the destination of exports. Britain mostly sells weapons to allies such as Saudi Arabia (with whom Margaret Thatcher signed Britain’s largest arms deal) not to strategic opponents like Iran.

Next week, with atrocious timing given recent events in Egypt and Syria, London hosts the world’s largest arms fair, the "Defence Security Equipment International" (DSEi) exhibition, organised with the help of the British government and part-subsidised by the UK taxpayer. One of the participating firms hoping to network and make deals at the event is the Russian State Technologies Corporation  (Rostec), whose arms export wing supplies weapons to the Assad regime. It is not yet known which states the British government has invited to attend this year, but past guests provide an indication. Colonel Gaddafi’s notoriously brutal son Khamis appears to have received a personal invite in 2009, while 2011’s guests included delegations from Bahrain and Egypt. A few months before the 2011 event, Bahrain had violently crushed a broad-based pro-democracy movement with the help of a Saudi-led intervention force, while later that autumn the Egyptian military massacred two dozen civilian protestors in Cairo . Many states have pavilions at DSEi to showcase their wares, including Israel, which boasts that its kit has been battle-tested. Clearly the enemies of democracy and self-determination will once again be out in force at this year’s event.

The mindset of militarism has been reflected in the debate over Syria this past fortnight, with even the most liberal of those advocating direct intervention repeatedly insisting that the choice is between waging war and “doing nothing”. In the Syrian case, it is hard to see how serious attempts at diplomacy and serious provision of humanitarian aid (unlike the wholly inadequate efforts made on both fronts so far) can credibly be classed as inaction. Elsewhere, people wanting to do something to counteract the forces of state violence and repression, in the Middle East and elsewhere, could do worse than get involved in the range of creative anti-DSEi protests planned by campaigners for next week, including a mass action on Sunday by Occupy London, a ‘meet-and-greet’ for arms dealers and protests against government support for the arms industry outside Parliament. These too are “humanitarian interventions”, conducted at the level of civil society, aimed at ending British complicity with violent anti-democratic forces around the world.

David Wearing is researching a PhD on British relations with the Gulf states at the School of Oriental and African Studies. Find him on Twitter as @davidwearing

Military hardware on show at the 2009 DSEi exhibition. Photo: Getty
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Q&A: Would Brexit really move “the Jungle” to Dover?

The 2003 Le Touquet treaty was negotiated outside the EU.

What is David Cameron’s most recent claim about Britain leaving the EU?

The Prime Minister is claiming that Brexit could result in France ending the agreement by which British immigration officials carry out checks on those seeking to enter the UK in France.  

More specifically, Cameron thinks that a vote to leave the EU would give the French government an excuse to revoke the Le Touquet treaty of 2003, and that this would cause refugee camps akin to the Calais “Jungle” to spring up along the English south coast.

What’s the Le Touquet treaty?

In February 2003, Tony Blair went to the northern French resort of Le Touquet to try and persuade President Jacques Chirac to support British and American military action in Iraq. (He failed). 

Blair and Chirac hogged the headlines, but on the summit’s sidelines, Home Secretary David Blunkett and his French counterpart, an ambitious young politician named Nicolas Sarkozy, negotiated a treaty establishing juxtaposed controls at each country’s sea ports.

This agreement meant that British border police could set up and run immigration checkpoints at Calais – effectively moving the British border there from Dover. The treaty also enabled French border police to carry out checks in Dover.

British border police had already been operating at French Eurostar terminals since 2001, and manning the French entrance to the Eurotunnel since 1994.

What’s all this got to do with the EU?

Technically, nothing. The Le Touquet treaty is a bilateral agreement between the UK and France. Both countries happen to be member states of the EU, but the negotiations took place outside of the EU’s auspices.

That's why eurosceptics have reacted with such fury today. Arron Banks, the co-founder of Leave.EU, said the Prime Minister was “resorting to scaremongering”, while Ukip’s migration spokesperson, in a surprising role-reversal, said that Cameron’s argument was “based on fear, negativity, and a falsehood”.

Cameron’s claim appears to be that Brexit would represent such a profound shift in the UK’s relationship with other European states that it could offer France an excuse to end the agreement reached at Le Touquet. That is debatable, but any suggestion that the treaty would instantly become void in the event of a vote to leave is untrue.

Does France actually want to revoke the treaty?

Local politicians in Calais, and in particular the town’s mayor, have been arguing for months that the treaty should be abandoned. Le Monde has also criticised it. The current French Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, hinted today that he agreed, saying that a British vote to leave “will always result in countermeasures”.

On the BBC's Today programme this morning, Rob Whiteman, a former head of the UK Border Agency, said that it was “almost certain” that the treaty would end if the UK left the EU. He said that France has benefited less from the deal than it expected:

“I think at the time the French felt there would be an upside for them, in that if it was clear that people could not easily get to Britain it would stop Sangatte building up again. The camp was closed. But history has shown that not to be the case. The French authorities still have a huge amount of pressure on their side.”

That said, the French government receives money from the British to help police Calais and its camps, and various French officials have acknowledged that their ports would receive even more traffic if refugees and migrants believed that it was easier to travel  to the UK than before.

If the treaty ended, would “the Jungle” just move to Dover?

There’s little doubt that because of linguistic and familial ties, and perhaps the perception that the UK is more welcoming than France, many refugees and migrants would come to the UK as quickly as they could to claim asylum here.

Whiteman also said on Today that since the 2003 agreement, the annual number of asylum claims in the UK had declined from 80,000 to around 30,000. So the UK could expect a significant spike in claims if the treaty were to end.

But the British asylum process makes it unlikely that anything like “the Jungle” would spring up. Instead, those claiming asylum would be dispersed around the country or, if authorities are worried they would flee, held in an immigration detention centre.

Why is Cameron saying this now?

This looks suspiciously like one of the Tories' election strategist Lynton Crosby’s dead cats. That is, in an effort to distract his critics from the detail of the renegotiation, the PM has provoked a row about migrants and refugees. Cameron is clearly keen to move the debate on from the minutiae of different European agreements to bigger questions about security and terrorism. Though getting bogged down in competing interpretations of a treaty from 2003 may not be the best way to move onto that broader terrain.