Some Europeans are thinking of getting a nuclear arsenal of their own. But that debate might result in a different outcome.
Although European political and military leaders remain committed to nuclear deterrence, since 2016 they have been unable to avoid a debate that may lead to European nuclear de-escalation. This debate concerns the question of strategic autonomy for the European Union, and it is linked to the debate over the modernization of NATO’s nuclear deterrent. Will NATO’s nuclear umbrella be replaced by Franco-German cooperation? Or will it be strengthened, as desired by the United States?
It is possible to imagine several outcomes to this strategic debate. Among them stands out the option of developing “European strategic autonomy,” as outlined in June 2016 by the European Union’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini. In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron repeated this idea in his speech on the future of Europe at the Sorbonne. A consensus seems to be forming: Europe must defend itself with its own means and use its own diplomacy to negotiate on the arms race. It is no longer enough to rely on its economic influence and soft power.
Public opinion seems to back this approach. According to a Eurobarometer survey by the European Commission, between 60 and 80 per cent of citizens believe that the EU should decide its foreign policy independently from the United States.
The building of Europe’s own defence, presented as a reaction to Washington’s new indifference, carries a risk: the resurgence of European militarism. In this context, what role will nuclear weapons play in the EU’s global strategy? The United States is planning to modernize and curtail the nuclear sharing system on European soil which continued after the Cold War. This system has lent credibility to the American nuclear deterrent since 1957, but since 2017 it is being questioned. Should it be maintained or replaced by European cooperation in nuclear defence? The Franco-German partnership would be a strong candidate to assume this burden, currently borne by NATO.
In any discussion of European shared defence, the issue of nuclear deterrence must be publicly debated. And, under certain conditions, the idea of European nuclear deterrence could provide real diplomatic leverage for a de-escalation strategy.
The modernization of NATO’s posture on the continent will be fiercely debated in the coming months. The vagueness of the US government’s intentions reflect the ambivalence of a president who has been openly anti-NATO from the outset. If the United States and NATO were to reduce their stockpile of nuclear weapons on European soil, the EU would have to decide how to achieve strategic autonomy. Here the question of nuclear deterrence becomes crucial. The US, which since the 1950s extolled the sharing of both nuclear and conventional weapons as well as scientific knowledge, is now proposing a different arrangement. During his presidential campaign Donald Trump suggested that only NATO members who pay will be defended by America. This turned an “unconditional” political alliance into something “purely transactional.” It rendered the guarantee of American protection “insecure and revocable,” as François Heisbourg recently observed.
Europe is now divided as to the desirability of strategic autonomy. There is no consensus among the 27 member states regarding EU’s relationship to NATO or how to share military resources—especially nuclear weapons. One vision is held by the neutral states—Sweden, Ireland and Austria. They want European defence to be based on “civilian crisis management” and “conflict prevention” by the UN with the support of the EU.
Italy and Spain (and perhaps Portugal) see things differently, maintaining a sort of dual loyalty to both NATO and the EU. The Baltic states have no objections to the NATO-ization of Europe. This was stated by Estonia’s defence minister Jüri Luik at the Munich security conference:
“NATO and the transatlantic Alliance is the crucial deterrent which keeps Europe safe. We would have never worked with those projects [PESCO or the European Defence Fund] if we believed that they would, in any way, step over NATO or copy what NATO is doing.”
Poland, the only European country willing to talk about nuclear deterrence with Paris, is another Atlanticist. Greece’s ruling class favors the idea of a European nuclear deterrent, nearly two decades after the US?withdrew its kiloton-yield B-61 bombs from Greek soil.
The situation in France is different. National strategic autonomy has been somewhat weakened since Paris rejoined NATO’s integrated military command in March 2009. France decided not to rejoin NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group, but signed the Lancaster House Treaties in 2010, to ally itself with the United Kingdom and avoid being isolated as it modernizes its weapons systems. But these treaties were met with suspicion in some European capitals, particularly Berlin and Rome, who saw them as an exclusive Franco-British affair. And here Germany merits particular attention.
Last year saw the lifting of the taboo surrounding the Eurobomb, an idea first conceived in 1950s after the appointment of Franz Josef Strauss as West Germany’s defence minister. In a recent The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists article, Felix Wimmer outlined three scenarios for European nuclear deterrence if the United States were to stop guaranteeing nuclear protection to their allies.
The first option would be to base a European nuclear deterrent on the French and British arsenal. Such a plan would be unacceptable to states like Germany, Italy and Poland. The second option is one advocated by Roderich Kieswetter, the Christian Democratic Union Bundestag member and former Bundeswehr general staff officer. He has openly called for a German military nuclear program, pointing out that German technological and scientific assistance was key to France’s acquisition of the hydrogen bomb in 1961. However, this option (aimed at Trump) has little chance of going anywhere. It is opposed by the armed forces, public opinion (over 80 per cent of Germans oppose US nuclear weapons on their soil) and the international community (a casus belli for Moscow, as reiterated in 1992).
Finally, the third scenario imagined by Felix Wimmer is the most likely. It would have Germany contribute to the French air force. French air-to-ground missiles would replace US nuclear warheads stockpiled in Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Italy. Their number (50 or so) is dwarfed by Russia’s 2000-3000 tactical nuclear weapons, but parity is not necessarily an issue at this stage. Although a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Germany is entitled to participate in its neighbors’ nuclear weapons programs through technical cooperation or financial support, as a Bundestag report published in April 2017 reaffirms.
What about France? Are French strategists prepared to share their nuclear weapons with their German counterparts? This question has long been settled. The Socialist Party, including President François Mitterrand, has pictured this since the 1990s. Tying the force de frappe to Europe is therefore a return to its roots; it means boosting France’s prestige, gambling on renewed military leadership despite economic weakness and counting on real German partnership. It means realizing the neo-Gaullist concept of Alain Juppé who, as prime minister in 1995, advocated a joint or “shared” deterrent.
It is no longer a question of whether or not to modernize: France no longer sees a choice. To prevent its nuclear deterrent from becoming obsolete, to answer critics (who say it is a Cold War relic, a “new Maginot Line,” and so forth) and to lend credibility to a program that began in the 1950s, Europeanizing the French nuclear umbrella seems the only solution.
In the current arms race, modernizing NATO’s nuclear deterrent risks dragging Europe into a new military escalation with Russia. To avoid such a scenario, given the sensitivity over North Korea and Iran, it is vital not to abandon the use of diplomacy to encourage nuclear de-escalation. The European Union must play a greater role in diplomatic efforts toward disarmament, especially at the UN, by putting forward a timetable and initiatives for preventive disarmament. It must speak with a single voice on the question of nuclear deterrence, which the EU has somewhat neglected since Javier Solana was at the helm of EU foreign policy. The 27 could adopt the Danish stance: refuse to have any nuclear weapons (whether American or Franco-German) on its soil.
The EU has the opportunity to revive the idea of a gradual denuclearization of Europe, one that can be traced back to the 1957 Rapacki Plan. It could, for example, “Europeanize” the stances of Denmark (excluding Greenland) and Norway: countries who do not allow the presence of nuclear weapons on their territory in peacetime.
Finally, as part of negotiations on the future of the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the EU could propose the withdrawal of nuclear weapons from all European states who do not possess them in their own right. With or without Trump, the strategic umbrella cannot depend on an outside power, even one that was once seen as benevolent. It would also be desirable to accelerate the process of withdrawing American nuclear warheads from Kleine-Brogel air base in Belgium and Volkel airbase in the Netherlands as a prelude to doing the same in Germany, something which the vast majority of Germans want.
So, the Europeans who consider new B-61 bombs necessary may reject a Europe-wide approach to security and expect the weapons to be controlled by their owners instead of by those who pay for their storage and upkeep. Though far short of actual nuclear disarmament, that would amount to de-escalation and could soften, or even replace, the NATO strategy of nuclear deterrence.
Replacing the American nuclear umbrella with Franco-German or even European cooperation might push Russia and the United States to reduce their stockpiles of nuclear weapons in Europe. The Rapacki Plan had sketched out his strategy of preventive denuclearization at the beginning of the Cold War to prevent the nuclearization of Central Europe. In the current arms race, we urgently need such a plan for nuclear de-escalation in Europe. The debate on nuclear modernization may contribute to that.
Ben Cramer is a researcher at the Belgian Institute GRIP. Felix Blanc lectures at Sciences Po in Paris and is Head of Public Policy at Internet Without Borders (French NGO).