Mikser: Nuclear arms control must be taken more seriously

MEP Sven Mikser (S&D). [European Union 2019 - Source: EP]

With evolving technology and changing military doctrines, arms control and nuclear weapons control should be brought back to top attention, but it is “increasingly difficult to come to any agreement among the critical players” in the world, MEP Sven Mikser told EURACTIV in an interview.

Sven Mikser (S&D) is a former Estonian foreign minister and currently serves as an MEP in the European Parliament’s Committee on Foreign Affairs and its Subcommittee on Security and Defence.

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With the 50th anniversary of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in March, the United Nations is preparing to review the accord amid growing signs that divisions and distrust are rife among countries that possess nuclear arsenals.

After the INF Treaty collapsed in 2019 and with several other accords in jeopardy or set to expire, disarmament experts have called for an “urgent response”, including from the Europeans, who had largely looked on during its demise.

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With the INF Treaty dead and other ones in jeopardy, do you think we’re going back to the 1970s? Is there hope to reverse the current trend?

In some way, all these parallels and similarities are deceptive. We’re not going back to the 1970s, but we do live in an increasingly dangerous world. The whole arms control architecture was built up over many, many years and we somehow missed the urgency after the end of the Cold War.

What we are witnessing is one treaty after another falling apart, while other treaties become defunct to non-functional or even formally abolished. It’s something that needs to be taken very seriously, especially since most of those nightmare scenarios, when it comes to nuclear weapons at least, have not materialised so far. But nonetheless, with the evolution of technology and the changing military doctrines, arms control in general and nuclear weapons control, should be brought back to top attention.

Europe is shielded by the US nuclear umbrella. Some critics argued that the INF Treaty demise could be an opportunity of making Europe a stand-alone actor who could pursue an EU-Russia treaty to replace it?

Originally, the INF Treaty was a bilateral treaty between the US and the then Soviet Union. If you are talking seriously about nuclear arms control, or the regimes to limit the development of technology relevant to the delivery mechanisms of nuclear weapons, then there is no question all the relevant actors should be on board. Even though one of the EU members is a nuclear weapon state, and there’s another one that just left the EU, I don’t think we alone can claim parity with the Russians.

When it comes to strategic nukes, obviously the big players are the Russians and the Americans: all tactical or strategic nukes stationed on the European soil are American, they are part of the NATO nuclear deterrent.

Let the two big powers sort it out by themselves then?

There’s one aspect in which the world has changed critically, namely the fact that there are other players, notably China, who can develop similar systems. Rather than trying to narrow the frameworks, we should seek to broaden them. What we should be seeking is a multilateral arrangement that would take on board all players.

But, obviously, that doesn’t mean that we should abandon all existing bilateral treaties between Americans and Russians. In the absence of these multilateral replacements, it would be a very irresponsible thing to do.

Actually, one of the American grievances were the alleged Russian violations related to the development of systems that would have been banned under the INF, which ultimately played a critical role in its collapse.

When it comes to the idea of creating a new multilateral arms control framework, China has so far refused it, Russia had some reservations against that as well…

That’s what worries me. Towards the end of the Cold War, there was this perceived urgency about this, and it wasn’t only limited to nuclear weapons. There were attempts to put in place other arms control regimes that were rather ambitious. Today, it is increasingly difficult to come to any agreement among the critical players.

You mentioned the UK exit from the bloc, which leaves France as the only European nuclear power. What’s your take on Macron’s recent proposals for a European arms control framework?

Obviously, there are calls for something that can be interpreted as a sort of political goal. But they need to be given substance before you can speculate as to how realistic they are.

The European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee recently made recommendations for the EU leadership on the bloc’s arms control position. What concrete steps do you expect the EU to take when it comes to the NPT Treaty review process?

The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) has been around for 50 years and it is in fact the only proper multilateral agreement we have.

Very broadly speaking, there are two goals. First, we would like to see the EU come together and adopt a common position. There are some differences among individual EU member states as to how they would approach not just the conference, but the whole NPT review process as such.

Sweden has been very active in promoting the Stockholm Initiative on Nuclear Disarmament and adopted a political declaration calling nuclear weapons states to take measures. Then, there are some non-NATO EU members who have been actively promoting the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

However, all the EU member states that are also NATO members approach the whole discussion very cautiously. Obviously, you must be very realistic in what you pursue, it’s a sensitive national security matter.

Secondly, not only because it’s an important anniversary, but also because the previous conference resulted in a failure to adopt a final document, it’s very important that this conference should be more successful in this regard.

The ultimate goal is to agree on a joint statement or go to beyond?

We haven’t seen any of those nightmare scenarios playing out. In a very long time, we haven’t moved an inch when it comes to one of the three pillars, the nuclear disarmament. While we haven’t seen explosive proliferation, we also haven’t seen dozens of new nuclear weapon states emerging.

More or less everyone seems obliged to the important elements of the overall nuclear arms control architecture, but we haven’t been able to finalise that. We don’t have a very clear view as to how we bring the outliers in or whether it’s possible at all.

The third pillar, the civilian use of nuclear energy, that’s something that doesn’t receive adequate attention, because you keep on talking about non-proliferation and disarmament, but it is an important element with potential ramifications. In the EU, one increasingly tends to talk about nuclear energy only in the context of the overall energy policy and about how it relates to climate goals, but the potential proliferation aspects of its use need to be kept on the agenda, too.

Turning to the EU-brokered Iran nuclear deal, are you optimistic about its survival? 

We definitely can discuss whether it was a perfect deal or not. Clearly, it was very narrowly focused on the military nuclear program and uranium enrichment, but the whole Iran issue is far broader.

It was not by accident, but rather a conscious decision, not to include the regional role that Iran is playing, the non-constructive role, the sponsoring of terrorist organisations and meddling in neighbouring countries’ affairs. And it was a conscious decision not to include the delivery mechanisms, the missile development programs.

When this agreement was negotiated – to which the EU has an emotional sense of ownership – many analysts were seriously putting the breakout date at a very close time in the future. We’re talking about several months before Iran could detonate a device and it was worth a try to at least delay and get rid of the immediate threat.

How long can the EU uphold its current position of defending the deal?

I am very unhappy about the US decision to walk away from the deal. It was regrettable that the Americans could not codify it into law either when the Obama administration negotiated it, he never had the votes in the Senate to ratify it. That’s why it was so easy for the Trump administration to pull out by executive order.

It’s not only a matter of how long the EU can hold the nerve, but it’s also developments which we have to admit that we cannot physically influence and which can bring us to a situation where the treaty is no longer viable.

The confidence is not very high between the Europeans and the Iranians at this moment, but it was it an important agreement, even if it was not perfect. Perhaps the Europeans should have taken more seriously the American concerns related to the issues that were not covered by the agreement.

The EU essentially has been right in trying to uphold the agreement, because again, like with the INF and others – when we do not have replacements on the horizon, even non-perfect arrangements are preferable to lawlessness.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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