Losing the way with robots and inflatable shields

This blog draws on a new report by the Flemish Peace Institute, ‘A European Agenda for Security Technology: From Innovation Policy to Export Controls’, and a presentation by its author, Jocelyn Mawdsley, at the launch event in the Flemish Parliament.

QCEA has been concerned for many years about the security theme of the European Commission’s research funding programme[1]. This research stream has a number of objectives, the main two being ‘security of citizens’ and ‘security of infrastructure and utilities’. The projects are incredibly varied. ‘AVERT’ is one example; it aims to develop an unmanned system to remove vehicles suspected of carrying explosive devices from vulnerable positions. Another, RAPTOR, aims to develop inflatable shields that will protect emergency response workers against terrorist or crime attacks.

Our work on this programme focuses on the securitisation of policy areas which could be peacefully addressed by research in the social sciences and humanities. For example, QCEA questions whether increased migration to Europe is best addressed by investing in the research and development of unmanned vehicles which would intercept and restrain people trying to illegally cross borders (TALOS). Instead, a more positive and nonviolent solution may become clear if we better understand the underlying socio-economic causes of migration.  With more knowledge of the needs of migrants arriving in Europe, our response could be more effective, open and fair. Investing in the social sciences and humanities was a key recommendation of QCEA regarding the upcoming Horizon 2020 security research programme.

Commission for the Internal Market Michael Barnier, the leader of the Task Force on Defence Industries. Credit: European Commission

Commissioner for the Internal Market Michael Barnier, the leader of the Task Force on Defence Industries. Credit: European Commission

Another concern is that the security research programme appears to be a sleight of hand by the Commission to allow funding to reach the defence sector. Some of the largest arms companies in the world (Thales, Finmeccanica, EADS, and BAE Systems) are recipients of EU security research funding. Over the last decade the Commission has placed more and more importance on supporting a European defence industrial base. A recent development was the creation of the ‘Defence Industries Task Force’, whose aim “is to explore different policy options available to the Commission to strengthen the European defence equipment market and further enhance the competitiveness of the defence industry”.

At the heart of these two issues is the worry that the concept of security (now often defined so broadly as to include climate change, food and energy as well as territorial integrity of the state) is frequently and increasingly conceptualised as ‘us versus them’.  We’re told we must protect ourselves against the many ‘threats’ facing Europe, and thus we tackle issues such as migration as if there were an existential military threat at our borders.


The new report by the Flemish Peace Institute.

A new report by the Flemish Peace Institute (FPI) sheds light on these issues and provides insight into the policy agenda of the European Commission. The report is based on a series of interviews in 2008 and 2012 with representatives from the European Commission, European Parliament, and the European Defence Agency. The author,Dr Jocelyn Mawdsley, has been writing on EU defence and security policy for over a decade. The most striking conclusion of the report is that the Commission has consistently tried to blur the line between defence and security. They have done so despite the fact that these two policy areas are quite separate. Whilst there is some overlap between the two, they are, for the most part, distinct and detached industries, with different suppliers, different products and different end-users. The security industry is concerned with products that assist in infrastructure and property protection, and supply many different end-users, including airports, energy companies (to protect infrastructure) as well as small domestic customers. Defence companies supply states and governments, and they often deal in large highly-technical platforms.

The security research programme was created by the European Commission to ensure European defence companies could compete in the global security market, but the report suggests that this policy was based on two false assumptions. The first false assumption was that defence companies would easily be able to enter the security market when, in fact, the security industry is already quite competitive and hard to penetrate. Secondly, it was assumed that Europe would see a ‘homeland security’ boom, as did the United States post 9/11. In reality, national governments in Europe have been far from keen to invest significantly in ‘homeland security’ technologies. The Commission incorrectly assumed that Member State governments and agencies would be the prime markets for products of the security research programme. Projects such as those mentioned above – unmanned vehicles to move car bombs to safety, inflatable bullet proof shields for emergency workers, and robots that will intercept and restrain migrants – have in fact proved difficult to market to European governments.

Screengrab from the website of FinFisher: 'Governmental IT Intrusion and Remote Monitoring Solutions'

Screengrab from the website of FinFisher: ‘Governmental IT Intrusion and Remote Monitoring Solutions’

The lack of demand in the European market means that the focus of the Commission and industry is primarily on exports to governments outside the European Union. This is an alarming development for those concerned about the proliferation of technologies that could aid human rights abuses. The FPI report thus ends by asking whether current European export controls are robust enough to ensure that new technologies, such as those being developed under the EU’s security research programme, don’t fall in to the wrong hands. A recent example from the UK would suggest that export controls are weak. UK-based firm ‘Gamma International UK’ is facing criticism because its surveillance software was used by the Bahraini government against protesters during the ‘Arab Spring’. This software was not funded by EU research money, but it is an example of the sorts of platforms being developed and of the loopholes in export control regimes.

The proliferation of new security technologies brings us back to QCEA’s original concern with the security research programme. Namely, are we sure we’re making the world a more secure place? By assigning everything a threat level, deeming it a ‘security’ risk, and trying to protect ourselves from it, not only do we risk undermining the fundamental equality of human beings, but we create an enemy that may not exist. When it turns out that the enemy wasn’t there, we then try to convince others the threat exists so we can sell them our now redundant defences. We should explore the root causes of instability in the world and understand how we can play our part in addressing them peacefully. That is the way to a more peaceful, more secure world – it is not by making armed robots and inflatable bullet-proof shields.

Further reading:

The Transnational Institute has produced a number of excellent reports on the EU security research programme. They are ‘Arming Big Brother’, ‘NeoConOptiCon’, and ‘Borderline’.

QCEA has written a number of briefing papers on EU security research. They are: ‘EU Security Research and Peacebuilding: a case of institutional and political disconnect’, and ‘Horizon 2020 – reflecting on changes proposed for the new EU research agenda

[1] The Research Framework Programmes are the main way the European Union funds research and development. They began in 1984, and have up until now consisted of 5-year funding cycles. The next Framework Programme, ‘Horizon 2020’, will last for seven years – corresponding with the EU budget timeline.

About Chris Venables

Chris was a Programme Assistant at the Quaker Council for European Affairs from September 2012 to September 2013. He researched and wrote on the militarisation of the European Union.
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