Europe’s diplomats and heads of states are playing with an idea that, until a few years ago, seemed almost unthinkable: creating Europe’s very own nuclear force, a “Eurodeterrent” of sorts, with the main aim of becoming less dependent on the US while still being safe from Russia.
Europe is in a difficult situation. On the one hand, president Trump calls NATO “obsolete”, not exactly bolstering the trust of the United States’ European allies in the reliability of the system. On the other hand, tensions with Russia remain high, with Western and Russian planes routinely intercepting each other in international airspace. So far, Europe’s ability to defend itself from Russia was safeguarded by the US’ nuclear shield over the continent. But as trust in the alliance dwindles, those in charge are looking for a new way of doing things – a European way of doing things.
The idea of a European Nuclear Command isn’t necessarily a new one, but it was never discussed much and what little discussion took place was usually done behind closed doors and only with a small circle of involved people.
It is also important to note that two European countries already possess nuclear weapons of their own – namely the UK and France. However with the population of the UK having marginally voted in favor of leaving the European Union and the rest of the continent waiting for Article 50 – officially kicking off the UK’s process of leaving the Union – to be triggered, France would likely become a key player in any European Nuclear Force.
Another key player would be Germany, and that certainly wouldn’t go without significant problems. Technically, the country has the capacities to quickly generate weapons-grade plutonium and subsequently nuclear weapons of their own. However, the German public is notoriously opposed to any nuclear plans, with some polls reporting that over 90% of the population wouldn’t want to see a “German bomb”. The idea is also very sensitive due to the historical context of Germany’s key role in the World Wars of the 20th century.
Despite the idea being wildly unpopular, in 2007 the German defense minister at the time, Rupert Scholz, said that Germany should strive to become a nuclear power of its own. In the same year, the French president Nicolas Sarkozy offered to share command over their nuclear arsenal with Germany. At the time, German chancellor Angela Merkel and foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier rejected the offer.
Overall, the idea of a European nuclear deterrent is very unpopular both with the general public as well as with the politicians of the EU, to a part also because of the diplomatic complications that may arise. Firstly, European politicians don’t want to risk sending “the wrong message” neither to Washington nor Moscow. And then there’s also the problem with the non-proliferation treaty; though there is a potential loophole for this issue: In Diplomatic notes attached to Germany’s Non-Proliferation Treaty ratification documents, Germany said it was “convinced that no stipulation in the treaty can be construed to hinder the further development European unification, especially the creation of a European Union with appropriate capabilities”.
The idea that is currently looked upon most favorably by the supporters of a “Eurodeterrent” is to possibly share France’s nuclear arsenal. Though the country stated in the past that France’s nuclear capacities were only enough to “protect a small territory” – France – from any outside threats, there may be room for negotiation. If the French arsenal were to be shared, that would likely see the formation of a centralized European Nuclear Command, and all member nations contribution financially to maintaining and upgrading the arsenal. The formation of this sort of “Eurodeterrent” may be in France’s favor, as they would gain a lot of political influence on the continent. It would also be in the interest of the European Union, as it would certainly be a big step towards a unified European Army. What’s more, sharing the French nuclear arsenal may also help evade trouble with the non-proliferation treaty – though it is a grey area.
A nuclear Europe is highly unlikely to happen anytime soon. However the idea is out there, diplomats are discussing it, and with the current political situation in the US and tensions with Russia, it is certainly more relevant than it may have been just a few years ago. Europe has the potential to go nuclear – the only question now is: will there be a “Eurodeterrent”?