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Commentary | 10 August 2018

It’s time to put an end to the phantom euro-nukes debate

“I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” Robert Oppenheimer said after Fat Man and Little Boy had been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The father of the atomic bomb knew that things would never be the same after the Bomb – and they haven’t been. Indeed, tensions caused by nuclear weapons pose today’s most intractable problems; think Iran and North Korea. But all along, NATO member states – and a number of other key nations – have maintained unwavering commitment to the Non-Proliferation Treaty and recognized the protective value of the US nuclear umbrella. The most important of these countries is arguably Germany, which could relatively easily have developed a bomb of its own. That a number of German academics and news outlets have now created a national debate around “German nukes” and  “euro-nukes” as an alternative to the US nuclear umbrella is unfortunate.

“Given that the US nuclear guarantee has become questionable and that no European nuclear deterrence version is feasible, the conclusion has to be: in an extreme case Germany can only rely on itself.” Thus begins the article, published in the German newspaper Welt am Sonntag on 29 July, that unleashed this summer’s hottest political debate in Germany. (Or, to be more precise, the hottest debate in the defence community.) The article was written not by a policy-maker but by Christian Hacke, a professor of political science at the University of Bonn. Hacke is a renowned academic — and academically speaking, the argument for German nukes that he presented in Welt am Sonntag may make perfect sense. Indeed, ELN member Roderich Kiesewetter – a CDU member of Germany’s Bundestag and former colonel in the Bundeswehr – made a similar venture last year, proposing a European nuclear deterrent. “If the United States no longer wants to provide this guarantee, Europe still needs nuclear protection for deterrent purposes,” he told Reuters.

It is, of course, imperative for policy-makers to dip their proverbial toe, and Kiesewetter deserves credit for having dared to broach the subject. But after taking those first enquiring steps into nuclear possibilities, he didn’t pursue the matter further. When the euro-nukes proposition emerged last year, a number of German academics and think tankers dismissed it as unfeasible and unnecessary. This year’s reincarnation of the debate is, in turn, not driven by politicians but runs between academics and think tankers for a good reason: German nukes and euro-nukes are a bad idea. On the most fundamental level, it’s a bad idea because if Germany and any countries other than the UK and France are to be part of the cooperation, they would have to leave the NPT. That would put them in the unsavoury company of North Korea, the only country to have left the treaty.

To be sure, nobody could force them to stay. But with the international community trying their hardest to make Iran comply with its NPT obligations, it would smell of Western hypocrisy extraordinaire if Germany and possibly other European countries could simply bid farewell to the treaty in order to turn French and British nuclear capabilities into European ones.

Indeed, the NPT works precisely because a number of countries that would be able to develop nuclear weapons have chosen to shelve any such plans in favour of global stability. If Germany and possibly other European countries simply leave the NPT, there’s nothing to stop other – less sanguine – countries from doing the same. Saudi Arabia has, for example, been itching to develop an arsenal. And if Saudi Arabia proceeds, Egypt and others may feel compelled to match it. Indeed, with the floodgates open, what’s to stop South Korea from matching North Korea?

At a more practical level, even if France and the UK agreed to extend a nuclear umbrella and turn their weapons into euro-nukes, we Europeans would still rely on America – as the United States has for years played an important part technically supporting the French and British arsenals. In case of a German nuke, that reliance on America would, of course, be larger still, unless France and the UK rapidly acquired additional skills that would allow them to help the Germans along.

That raises the question of whether the UK and France would be willing to be the anchor of a euro-nuke arrangement. If so, should it be both of them? Or just one? Should euro-nukes be developed within an EU framework? That seems a no-starter, given that a number of EU countries that are not members of NATO have signed the UN General Assembly’s nuclear ban treaty. It would thus have to be a coalition of the wiling. But would France and the UK, or one of them, be prepared to take on the burden sharing their nuclear arsenals? And would the resulting arrangement be superior to the current US-anchored one? As things stand, no non-nuclear European government has posed the question to Paris or London – and until they do, any discussion of euro-nukes (or indeed German nukes) is a moot point. What’s more, the phantom euro-nukes debate steers attention away from extremely urgent issues such as development of European conventional capabilities.

But the most decisive factor is, of course, the voters. To be sure, US voters were not consulted on the Manhattan Project. But today, any new German or other European nuclear activities would have to be presented to the population – and they would immediately reject the proposition. 71 per cent of Germans even want the country to sign the nuclear ban treaty passed by the UN General Assembly last year, as do 72 per cent of Italians.

Robert Oppenheimer, the son of a German immigrant, struggled with crippling guilt until his death. “I am become the destroyer of worlds”: which German politician would want to repeat his words?


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 challenges.