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Commentary | 7 December 2018

Euro-nukes? A difficult but perhaps necessary debate

Image of Adérito Vicente

Adérito Vicente |PhD researcher in Department of Political and Social Sciences (SPS) at the European University Institute (EUI)

Brexit EU Europe NPT Nuclear Arms Control Nuclear Security Nuclear Weapons European Defence

“It is not a matter of increasing nuclear forces, but of creating conditions which will gradually make it possible to eliminate them”. This statement, written by Jean Monnet at the Action Committee of United States of Europe (ACUSE) in Bonn, on June 1, 1964, remains relevant today.

At the time of Monnet’s declaration, there were ongoing debates surrounding nuclear arrangements and proposals for a multilateral nuclear force (MLF) within NATO. At the same time, Europeans remained concerned over the US commitment to protect them and demanded more control over their security. Italy, France and West Germany sought to develop their own nuclear forces under the so-called F-I-G secret protocol.

However, all western European countries, with the exception of France, had ultimately abandoned the quest for nuclear weapons with the inception of NATO’s extended deterrence and negotiation of the NPT.

Yet questions surrounding the credibility of the US’ extended nuclear deterrence, and the need for an independent European nuclear force have again emerged. Two important events have precipitated the debate. First, Russia’s annexation of Crimea and an inability to maintain security assurances previously given to Ukraine under the 1994 Budapest Memorandum, and  second, arguments made by President Trump regarding the conditionality of America’s commitment to European security; from presidential campaign to latest tweets.

Some experts, including Elisabeth Braw in an ELN commentary, argue the debate is unnecessary; I disagree. The current security environment demands a serious discussion on European nuclear security, without undermining the Atlantic Alliance or NPT regime. After all, any real European ‘Strategic Autonomy’ will require two essential features: 1) an ability to be independent from the US in terms of security, and 2) the capacity to deter Russia (and in the long-term, China) both politically and militarily. It currently succeeds in neither.

While the EU is a trade and economic superpower, its lack of hard power progressively undermines its soft power. Brexit, alongside a myriad of troubles besetting Europe, appears to mark the end of the post-War project of a closer Union. Moreover, President Trump’s notion of America First, directly or otherwise, undermines the promotion of free trade, multilateralism and environmental norms – signatures of international liberalism. It is clear that the post-1945 order is in crisis. According to John G. Ikenberry, “across the liberal democratic world, populist, nationalist and xenophobic strands of backlash politics have proliferated”. The inability of Europe to promote the rules-based international order suggests a limited prevalence on the world stage through its use of soft power alone.

Why should the EU be pleased with the current nuclear order and P5 monopoly? During the 1960s, a number of European non-nuclear weapon states were actively working towards preserving the so-called European option or ‘the European nuclear clause’: obtaining the assurance that the NPT would not prohibit establishing a nuclear force once a European federation had been created. Whilst we are still far away from that level of integration, the issue of the EU’s role in international affairs nonetheless remains at stake.

Post-Brexit, the Union’s external strength will suffer from the loss of one of its two actors able to operate on a global scale (the other being France). While the UK’s withdrawal will not prevent it cooperating with Europe completely, it is true that collaboration with the Continent may be limited. As a result, the Union’s historical inability to cope with some external challenges may increase.

It is important to note these weaknesses, but it is also important to examine what may lay ahead with regards to the EU and the nuclear field.

Let us first examine why it may not be feasible or desirable to create a European nuclear force.

First, the cul-de-sac of historical constraints: The European project has always been a scheme created by European elites under the ‘umbrella’ of post-War western victors, in which the EU, like NATO and the OECD, was part of the Atlantic partnership framework. For that reason, ACUSE’s view that the “pressure for national nuclear forces…would work against European integration”, as the defence of Europe “can only be ensured in the framework of the Atlantic Alliance” remains valid for many Europeans.

Second, France and the UK have, to date, shown no real interest in abandoning their ‘lawful’ national nuclear power status as part of P5 and no desire to share their nuclear deterrent capabilities, preferring to remain independent from the EU in this respect.

Third, the question of German control over nuclear weapons. From 1958 and the end of the F-I-G arrangements under President de Gaulle, any Franco-German ‘nuclear flirtation’ resulting in German control over weapons has been made impossible due to France’s perception that Germany’s power should be checked.

Fourth, and perhaps most vital for the EU as a global actor, it is not desirable for Europe politically to constitute its own nuclear force. The idea of Euro-nukes may affect the promotion of interests and values with third-party actors and member states. Furthermore, the rejection of the non-proliferation norm could diminish EU’s legitimacy internally, particularly at a time when public opinion remains doubtful over the rationale for nuclear weapons.

With that being said, if the strategic autonomy of the EU ultimately relies on having a sovereign nuclear option, how could Euro-nukes come about? I see two possible answers.

First, the creation of a new, independent, multilateral nuclear force: A scenario in which European nuclear weapon state(s) share their arsenal and encourage others to contribute to burden sharing. This would fulfil Europe’s ambition to gain control over its own security, without increasing the number of nuclear weapon states in Europe. Such extended nuclear deterrence guarantees (e.g. from France) would not undermine the global NPT regime.

However, if this is deemed unnecessary from the transatlantic position, another possible option remains: EU member states demanding more involvement in NATO’s nuclear command and control.

As mentioned, this option was explored in the 1960s, and many of the same problems persist – for example France (soon to be the only EU’s nuclear weapon state) being out of Nuclear Planning Group which determines the Alliance’s nuclear policy. However these challenges can be resolved, for example, by France joining the NPG to increase European ‘weigh’ in NATO nuclear issues.

For the last 60 years, the prevailing view has been that nuclear deterrence in Europe can only be ensured through the framework of the Atlantic Alliance, and this has strengthened the partnership between America and Europe.

We appear to be maintaining the status quo. Currently it seems that until either the US no longer wants to provide extended deterrence guarantees, or until further and dramatic political integration takes place within the Union, an independent nuclear option in Europe remains unfeasible. Nonetheless, this should not prevent us from thinking through and discussing the matter seriously.

The opinions articulated above also do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address pressing foreign, defence, and security challenge.