Arms control in crisis? 02 - 2020 - Item 6 from 9
Liability or asset? The EU and nuclear weapons
Series Geopolitics & Global Order

Liability or asset? The EU and nuclear weapons

16 Jun 2020 - 16:40
Photo : President Donald Trump and President Emmanuel Macron watch a flyover by the French Air Force, 2019. © The White House - Flickr

With Russia’s annexation of Crimea and increased uncertainty about Washington’s security commitments, EU nuclear deterrence has reappeared on the political agenda. This sixth episode of the Clingendael Spectator series on arms control considers the prospects for such a proposal. Does the EU need its own nuclear deterrent? And what would be the implications for the EU and its role in global affairs?

With the United Kingdom now outside the EU, the spotlight is on France as the only remaining European nuclear weapon state. On 7 February 2020, President Emmanuel Macron gave some partial answers to the question in a keynote speech on the French Defense and Deterrence Strategy: Paris would and could put its 300 nuclear warheads to the defence of Europe.1

Speaking at the Military Academy, Macron stated that “France’s vital interests now have a European dimension” and suggested a strategic dialogue with other European partners “on the role played by France’s nuclear deterrence in our collective security.”

French President Emmanuel Macron, October 2019. © Francediplomatie / Flickr
French President Emmanuel Macron, October 2019. © Francediplomatie / Flickr

The President also invited “European partners which are willing to walk that road” to be associated with exercises of French deterrence forces. Joint manoeuvres of French nuclear forces with non-nuclear weapon states would be unprecedented. Macron hopes that such interactions would facilitate the development of “a true strategic culture among Europeans”.

NATO’s nuclear deterrence
Currently, most Europeans rely on NATO for their defence, including nuclear deterrence. Under NATO nuclear sharing arrangements, allies discuss, plan and exercise nuclear missions and the United States deploys some 150 B-61gravity bombs in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Turkey. With the exception of Turkey, European host nations provide their own dual-capable aircraft for the delivery of U.S. nuclear weapons in times of war.

The EU’s foreign and security policy still largely sidesteps hard security and defence issues

Though the EU has slowly acquired some capacity to command military hardware, the Union’s foreign and security policy still largely sidesteps hard security and defence issues. Instead, the Union capitalises on its strengths in international crisis prevention, peacekeeping and post-conflict stabilisation efforts. When the EU addresses security-related nuclear issues, it is mostly in the context of efforts to contain the spread of nuclear weapons or to improve the safety and security of nuclear installations.

Three factors may lead to changes of this division of labour between NATO and the EU. First, following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, many Europeans – and particularly those closest to Russia – want to strengthen collective defence arrangements.

Second, the nationalist agenda of U.S. President Donald Trump has shaken the trust of many Europeans in American security guarantees. The President’s loose talk about nuclear weapons in particular has revived doubts about the credibility of Washington’s extended nuclear deterrence commitments.

EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid in eastern Ukraine, 2015. © EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid / Flickr
EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid in eastern Ukraine, 2015. © EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid / Flickr

Third, there is a general perception that nuclear weapons are becoming more important as instruments of power globally, leading some to argue that the EU should also be able to wield its own nuclear swords.

So, would a European nuclear deterrent be an adequate response to these problems? The answer to this question has at least five different dimensions.

Hardware issues
First, there is the problem of hardware; nuclear warheads and means of delivery. A European nuclear deterrent could take a number of shapes. At one end of the spectrum might be a loose policy coordination through the kind of “strategic dialogue” suggested by Macron. At the other extreme would be a single nuclear force under an integrated European command.

These possibilities and many alternatives in between have been discussed over the last decades. Well-connected French nuclear analyst Bruno Tertrais has in 2018 has provided probably the most detailed menu of options for “basing” and “sharing” of French nuclear forces.2

Under current circumstances, Tertrais argues, France might demonstrate a possible nuclear dimension of mutual defence in the Lisbon Treaty by temporarily deploying French nuclear-capable aircraft in Eastern Europe.

Tertrais speculates that in the event of “significant change” in transatlantic relations, France would be ready to consider playing a stronger, visible role in ensuring that Europe feels protected by nuclear deterrence.” He discusses options ranging from joint nuclear exercises (which also appeared in Macrons nuclear policy speech) to a European nuclear maritime task force.3 To be sure, it seems hard to imagine that European publics would accept such new nuclear concepts or forces.

Integration or nuclear autonomy
There is in addition the second and difficult question of how Europeans would agree on what and whom nuclear weapons should actually deter. Nuclear deterrence – and particularly extended nuclear deterrence – brings with it a multitude of dilemmas.

These were difficult to resolve even during the Cold War, when the frontlines were much clearer. Finding consensus on such existential issues among Europeans today would be a challenge, considering that Europe cannot even reach agreement on security problems that are much smaller.

Collective defence arrangements rest on the notion of joint decision-making. For non-nuclear weapon states like Germany, the possibility of influencing the policies of nuclear allies has been key rationale for joining NATO nuclear sharing arrangements.4

Tertrais agrees that more integrated European nuclear policies would need to be accompanied “by an agreement on the conditions for their use” including possibly “a common nuclear planning mechanism, based on a common conception of nuclear deployment, which could coexist with national ones.”

There are no indications that Paris would be willing to leave its splendid nuclear isolationism in a European context

Yet, such proposals seem to be a long way off. Macron in his speech reconfirmed that French nuclear policy is built on the notion of autonomous decision-making. He clearly stated that France “does not take part in NATO’s nuclear planning mechanisms and will not do so in the future”. There are no indications that Paris would be willing to leave this splendid nuclear isolationism in a European context.

The devil on how European nuclear forces would credibly deter lies in the detail: Historically, joint planning and decision-making on the use of nuclear weapons, including for escalation control, was NATO’s unique way of addressing concerns that the United States might abandon Europe in a nuclear conflict.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visits U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House, 2019. © NATO / Flickr
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg visits U.S. President Donald Trump in the White House, 2019. © NATO / Flickr

But the French nuclear doctrine disavows any tactical use of nuclear weapons. The Force de Frappe, which probably consists of about 250 warheads based on sea-launched ballistic missiles and some 50 warheads based on air-launched cruise missiles, is not particularly well-suited to provide such flexibility either.5

There would also be the problem of making NATO’s nuclear doctrine compatible with a possible European nuclear deterrent. Deconflicting nuclear targets, for example, requires a degree of coordination that would be unprecedented, at least at the level of international organisations.

The Non-proliferation Treaty
Third, there are legal hurdles for a European nuclear deterrent. The core purpose of the nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) is to restrict the access of non-nuclear weapon states to nuclear weapons. All EU and Alliance member states are NPT parties.

NATO member states maintain that Alliance nuclear sharing arrangements are compatible with the letter and spirit of the NPT because key countries had explicitly or tacitly acknowledged the legality of sharing arrangements before the treaty was opened for signature in 1968.6

But that was half a century ago. Politically, it would be an uphill battle to make the same logic applicable to a Eurodeterrent, should it involve some kind of shared control over nuclear weapons.

Conflicting interests
Fourth, Europeans hold very different ideas about the role nuclear weapons do and should play in international security. EU member states include supporters of the new Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, such as Austria, but also staunch deterrence believers, with France at the forefront.

An attempt to give the EU’s defence and security policy a nuclear dimension might well split – rather than unite – Europe

The EU has been creative in designing arrangements on conventional forces to accommodate divergent member states’ interests and priorities. However, transposing such arrangements to the nuclear arena would inevitably result in zones of different security.

An attempt to give the EU’s defence and security policy a nuclear dimension might well split – rather than unite – Europe.

A militarised Europe?
Fifth, giving the EU’s foreign and security policy a nuclear dimension is likely to change the character of the Union and its role in the nuclear order. European policy-making procedures may often be convoluted, but they facilitate horizontal coalition-building. Nuclear weapons decision-making, by contrast, is intrinsically hierarchical and secretive.

Globally, a nuclear-armed EU would be less legitimate in advocating nuclear abstinence and disarmament. It seems inevitable that the Union’s role on the world stage would be more militaristic, were it to command nuclear weapons.

Europe does not have to ‘go with the flow’ and contribute to the increased salience of nuclear weapons by developing a nuclear deterrent

Some argue that France needs to extend its nuclear deterrent to non-nuclear European partners to compensate for the lack of attention Washington pays to Europe because it is “absorbed by its strategic rivalry with China”.7

But Europe does not have to ‘go with the flow’ and contribute to the increased salience of nuclear weapons by developing a nuclear deterrent. Europe can choose to remain an advocate of nuclear disarmament by emphasising that reductions in the role and numbers of nuclear weapons in and of themselves are contributions to international peace and security.

Advocate nuclear restraint, not deterrence
Previous initiatives on a Eurodeterrent have faltered because they were unable to resolve these and other problems.8 The lack of positive responses to Macron’s nuclear initiative from European partners indicates that European preferences on the division of labour between NATO and the EU have not changed fundamentally.

A Marine participates in Exercise Iron Sword 16 in Rukla Training Area, Lithuania, November 29, 2016. © Marines / Flickr
A Marine participates in Exercise Iron Sword 16 in Rukla Training Area, Lithuania, November 29, 2016. © Marines / Flickr

For the time being, it might therefore be more pragmatic to initiate a serious dialogue on how Europeans might shape the nuclear order without going down the road towards a Eurodeterrent.

In the past, the idea of step-by-step reductions of nuclear capabilities through arms control provided a pragmatic middle path for Europeans between deterrence believers and disarmament advocates. However, the idea of advocating nuclear restraint is in danger of becoming outdated because ideological hardliners within the Trump administration are pulling out the rug from under arms control treaties swiftly, while Russia continues to diversify its nuclear arsenal.

By going nuclear, Europe will simply aggravate the arms control crisis where it should be creatively looking for ways to strengthen multilateralism.

Authors
Oliver Meier
Senior Researcher at the University of Hamburg