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Red Herring & Black Swan: A Bomb for Europe?


The question of whether Germany needs to develop its own nuclear weapon is leading nowhere. It makes more sense to think about realistic scenarios for a European atomic deterrent.

It had already been a tumultuous political summer for Germany when an article published in mid-August jumbled Berlin and Brussels: a well-known German political scientist, Christian Hacke, dropped something of a bomb, suggesting it was time for Germany to become a nuclear power. The United States under President Donald Trump was withdrawing from the global stage and could no longer be relied upon as the guarantor of European security, Hacke argued, so it was time for Europe—and in particular Germany—to take matters into its own hands.

That sparked heated discussions. “The German Bomb Debate Goes Nuclear,” ran a POLITICO headline, even though the desire of Germans to acquire a bomb of their own is practically nonexistent.

The debate as such is not new. In the past, however, such talk centered around a common point: a desire to avoid relying solely on the US nuclear deterrent to ensure Europe’s security. But this time, things are different. The brutality of President Donald Trump’s body language and policies is unprecedented in transatlantic relations; the European Union is taking major steps to bolster its conventional defense identity and autonomy; and Russia’s behavior adds urgency to the need for Europe to protect itself against strategic threats.

Still, there is a certain amount of intellectual and political confusion when one reads or hears about a “European deterrent.” So let’s be clear up front about what will and will not happen any time soon. It is completely unrealistic to discuss the idea of a single European nuclear force controlled by a supranational executive body. Whatever happens in the realm of nuclear deterrence will be nation-based, and it will depend a lot on US policies toward Europe. It is here that France can play a central role.

The French and British Deterrent

The idea of a European nuclear deterrent has a long history. After the aborted “FIG” (France-Italy-Germany) collective uranium enrichment plan of the 1950s, Germany and Italy both ratified the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1975 with an important reservation: they should not preclude the possibility of a European nuclear force.

British and French nuclear deterrents were never designed to exclusively cover national vital interests and always had at least a de facto European dimension. Indeed, since the early 1960s, the UK force has been primarily at the service of the transatlantic alliance. It is less well known, however, that the French have always seen a European dimension to their nuclear deterrent.

For Charles de Gaulle, the fate of his country and that of the rest of Europe were closely linked. In instructions given to the armed forces in 1964, he specified that France should “feel threatened as soon as the territories of federal Germany and Benelux are violated.” That same year, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou made it clear publicly that the national deterrent amounted to a de facto European protection. With the Ottawa Declaration of 1974, NATO officially recognized the broader nuclear contribution of France and the UK to the security of the alliance.

With closer integration in Europe and the creation of the European Union in 1992, France began to stress more clearly the European dimension of deterrence. Several French statesmen mused publicly about the hypothetical transfer, one day, of nuclear weapons to a future common European political authority. President François Mitterrand the  also signaled his acceptance of the need for member-states to tackle the nuclear issue together when the time came: “Only two of the twelve possess an atomic force. For their national policies, they have a clear doctrine. Is it possible to devise a European doctrine? This question will very quickly become one of the major questions in the construction of a common European defense,” he said in a speech in January of 1992.

But just two years later, Mitterrand dialed back his rhetoric, stating: “There will be a European nuclear doctrine, a European deterrent, only when there are vital European interests, considered as such by the Europeans, and understood as such by others. As you can see, we are far away from there.”

The Defense White Paper adopted in the spring of that year unsurprisingly adopted the Mitterrand stance but made it a cornerstone of Europe’s future strategic autonomy as well: “With nuclear power, Europe’s autonomy in defense matters is possible. Without it, it is excluded.”

Jacques Chirac turned out to be more open-minded. As France embarked in a final nuclear testing campaign, Paris reaffirmed its European nuclear openings – eager as it was to show that it was not pursuing strictly national interests. French authorities confirmed that Paris was ready to raise issues related to nuclear deterrence with its European partners, and the 1995 UK-French Joint Statement on Nuclear Cooperation stated that French and British leaders reaffirmed that a threat to the vital interests of one country was a threat to both.

A year later, at a speech at the Ecole Militaire in Paris, Chirac underlined that UK-French nuclear cooperation was about “drawing all consequences of a community of destiny, of a growing intertwining of our vital interests.” He added “we do not propose a ready-made concept, but a gradual process open to those partners who wish to join.”

Cooperation with Germany budded as well. The decision to permanently retire the short-range Hades system in 1996 was taken after consultation with Germany. The Franco-German Common Concept on Security and Defense adopted in December of that same year stated: “Our countries are ready to engage in a dialogue on the function of nuclear deterrence in the context of European defense policy.”

Deterring Deterrence

However, more than twenty years later, this field remains largely fallow. There are several reasons for this, and the French are partly to blame. Their main drive for a European discussion of nuclear deterrence issues happened during their testing campaign of 1995-96, which was heavily criticized by several EU partners. Paris learned the lesson, and these reactions led France to abandon any appetite for major initiatives in this area.

French abstinence from the NATO Nuclear Planning Group has not helped either; EU members of the alliance have often seen it with suspicion. Whereas the French 2009 return to NATO’s military structure was sometimes seen—as Paris sought—as a gesture of goodwill showing that France did not seek to construct a competing European defense system, the same thing did not happen in the nuclear domain.

What’s more, as long as the NATO common deterrent appeared solid, no European country was really interested in discussing a common nuclear deterrent, and even less in rocking the boat by devising alternative nuclear arrangements. Finally, many in Europe (including in Paris) feared that a nuclear debate in the EU could complicate the task of building up common conventional capabilities.

This has not prevented France from making it increasingly clear that its deterrent plays a European role. Paris believes that French deterrence, by its very existence, contributes to Europe’s security and that a possible aggressor would do well to take this into account. Furthermore, an attack against a member country of the European Union could be considered by France as an attack against its own vital interests.

Scenarios for the Future

So how much has this debate revived in today’s context? If one describes the nuclear deterrence question as a matter of “supply” and “demand,” the European debate has evolved on both ends. On the demand side, Russia’s new assertiveness and territorial aggression have triggered a renewed interest in the means to guarantee territorial integrity. This is true in particular for countries that became members of NATO in the 2000s (Poland, the Baltic States, etc.) but also for EU members that are not members of NATO and thus do not rely on a formal US security guarantee. While this applies in particular to Finland and Sweden, it is important to note that after several rounds of enlargement, the number of such EU countries is much higher than was the case in the mid-1990s. On the supply side, doubts about the reliability of the US guarantee to Europe have rarely been as strong as under Donald Trump.

The time thus seems to be ripe for thinking about Europe’s nuclear role in securing the continent. Still, it is worth mentioning the several scenarios that will not happen any time soon, absent a dramatic and unexpected change in the European and transatlantic political landscape. There will be no “joint nuclear force” controlled by the European Union. There is near-zero interest today on the continent for a federal-type Union with a single executive, and there is equally near-zero appetite in France for transferring its nuclear assets to Europe.

Another unrealistic proposal is that European partners could partly fund the French force in return for a say in national policy. There is no political interest in Europe for such a scheme (including in Paris). Equally dubious is a pooling of UK and French assets. While it could have appeared attractive a few years ago, it is no longer a serious possibility. If Brexit happens, Britain will want to cling to its strategic assets.

Paris is also unlikely to join the NPG or assign part of its airborne component to the Atlantic Alliance. While there could be merit in doing so, French absence from the NPG and NATO nuclear arrangements is part of the country’s “strategic DNA.”

Furthermore, it is unlikely that any serious nuclear discussion will happen in the context of EU institutions. Diplomats know how difficult nuclear policy discussions can be in Brussels – as discussions on EU positions every five years for NPT conferences testify. The Nuclear Ban Treaty, on which several EU members have strong positive views, makes a nuclear deterrence debate in formal EU circles almost a non-starter at this point. Any productive discussion about scenarios and options to reinforce deterrence in Europe will have to be quiet and discreet, in bilateral formats or informal gatherings of officials and experts. In addition, any discussion in a strictly EU context would preclude UK presence or involvement.

NATO, the Deciding Factor

What are the realistic scenarios then? That heavily depends on one key variable: the continued existence of the current NATO nuclear arrangements. So the discussion needs to happen at two different levels – first within the existing context, second when taking into account a “what if?” hypothesis.

In the existing context, Paris can provide a complementary insurance to European NATO members and a nuclear reassurance to non-NATO EU members. It would be consistent with French views of the EU to state more clearly that the French force protects Europe as a whole. It seems to fit with the French view of the EU’s role that an aggression against Finnish, Estonian or Polish “vital” interests would jeopardize the very foundations of what our existence is about in the 21st century. Another way to put it would be to make it clear that Article 42.7 of the Lisbon Treaty—the mutual defense clause of the EU—could be exercised by any means. This would not be an “extended” deterrent in the traditional sense of the term: from the French standpoint, one cannot compare the protection conferred by a distant superpower to the recognition of a de facto reality.

This could possibly be supplemented by rotations of Rafale fighter-bombers (without their nuclear missiles) of the FAS to allied bases, including on the territory of the most eastern countries of the Alliance in order to demonstrate solidarity.

The range of possible scenarios would be different if there are dramatic changes in NATO. Think of a unilateral withdrawal of US nuclear weapons from Europe—an irrational decision for sure, but one which is not outside the bounds of the thinkable with the current US administration. Or an unraveling of the NATO nuclear basing and sharing mechanisms following a unilateral decision of a member country to cease being a part of it (think Turkey in particular).

In such scenarios, it is likely that France would be ready to consider playing a stronger and more visible role in ensuring that Europe feels protected by nuclear deterrence. France could base part of its airborne arsenal (say, of the order of ten missiles) in Germany or in Poland (“basing”) and/or agree that they could be carried by European fighter-bombers (“sharing”). For both political and technical reasons (the small size of the French arsenal), it is very unlikely that Paris and its European partners would seek to mirror the scope of current NATO arrangements, though.

A less ambitious option would be to mirror the NATO SNOWCAT (Support of NATO Operations With Conventional Air Tactics) procedure, where non-nuclear nations commit themselves to participate in a nuclear strike with non-nuclear assets. Another option, if and when France replaces its nuclear-powered carrier Charles-de-Gaulle and maintains its ability to embark nuclear missiles, would be to create the possibility of a European nuclear maritime task force, with accompanying European ships and, possibly, a European nuclear squadron.

If such decisions were made, they would need to be accompanied, just as is today the case in the NATO context, by an agreement on the conditions for their use. This would include legal and security arrangements (host nation support, etc.) but also, possibly, a common nuclear planning mechanism, based on a common conception of nuclear employment, which could coexist with national ones.

And then there is the question of the UK’s role. In the context of Brexit, London is eager to bolster its European security credentials. If we are correct to predict that the European deterrence question will not be treated within formal EU circles, it is conceivable that the United Kingdom could be part of such arrangements one way or the other.

Some would say that a France- and UK-based nuclear deterrent would not have the necessary credibility. This is not really a relevant argument in the debate, however. A smaller arsenal can deter a major power provided it has the ability to inflict unacceptable damage. And, most importantly, deterrence exercised by a European power might be seen as more credible than when it is exercised by a distant protector.

On all these questions, whatever happens to the transatlantic relationship, it is time to have a free and candid discussion.