Europeans should propose together “an international agenda of arms control” at a time when the existing treaties are questioned by other world powers and the nuclear arms race could resume, President Emmanuel Macron said on Friday (7 February) as he laid out France’s much-awaited post-Brexit nuclear weapons strategy.
Speaking in front of the top brass at the L’École de Guerre in Paris, Macron said Europeans “cannot confine themselves to the role of spectators” in the face of the nuclear arms race.
“Europeans must collectively realise that, for lack of a legal framework, they could find themselves rapidly exposed to the resumption of a conventional or even nuclear arms race on their soil,” Macron continued.
“France will mobilise the most concerned European partners in order to lay the foundations for a common international strategy that we can propose in all the forums where Europe is active,” the French head of state declared.
According to Macron, the moment has come for Europeans to “define together what their security interests are” and act to establish “a renewed international agenda for arms control”, an area where new treaties are to be written.
France, who considers nuclear deterrence a keystone of its defence strategy, has become the European Union’s sole nuclear power since Britain’s exit from the bloc on 31 January.
Since taking office, the French president has advocated for European “strategic autonomy” from Washington, a demand which he has rebranded as a common European “strategic culture” after push-back from more Atlanticist European member states, like Poland and the Baltics.
Macron’s push comes at a time when the nuclear umbrella of the United States has been thrown in doubt after US President Donald Trump adopted a more critical approach to NATO’s engagement in European security.
“France’s unshakable solidarity with its allies means that France’s vital interests now have a European dimension”, Macron added.
Demise of global arms control
Macron’s remarks come at a time of high global anxiety, marked by rising tension between military powers, a proliferation of regional security crises and the deterioration of international arms control.
The US withdrawal in 2018 from both the EU-brokered Iran nuclear deal, which Europeans are desperate to keep alive, and its exit from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Weapons Treaty (INF) in 2019 have realigned France’s nuclear strategy.
In 2019, Moscow and Washington abandoned the Soviet-era INF treaty, a landmark Cold War-era arms control accord which banned medium-range ground-launched nuclear-capable missiles of 500 to 5,500 kilometres, leaving Europeans worried about the new security situation.
Meanwhile, other treaties are also in limbo, like the Open Skies Treaty, a pact allowing participating countries to conduct surveillance flights over each other’s territory, which is especially beneficial for Eastern Europe, or a potential extension of the New START treaty, a nuclear arms reduction treaty between the US and Russia.
European nations insist on being signatories of any new deal to limit the development of new intermediate-range weapons.
“Let us be clear: if negotiations and a more comprehensive treaty are possible… Europeans must be stakeholders and signatories, because it’s our territory” that is most at risk, said Macron.
Over the years, changes in the French nuclear posture remained stable.
In 2018, Macron committed France to a costly modernisation of its nuclear arsenal capability at sea and air until 2035, arguing “deterrence is part of our history, part of our defence strategy, and will remain so.”
In Friday’s remarks, Macron announced France has reduced the size of its nuclear arsenal to “less than 300 heads”, praising the country’s “exemplary record” in terms of nuclear disarmament.
However, Beatrice Fihn, executive director of International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN), commented on Twitter that “not increasing arsenals of nuclear weapons really isn’t the same thing as nuclear disarmament”.
Lol. @EmmanuelMacron says France is keeping its responsibilities on nuclear disarmament by keeping its arsenal at around 300.
Not increasing arsenals of nuclear weapons really isn't the same thing as nuclear disarmament.
Nuclear disarmament is nuclear disarmament.
— Beatrice Fihn (@BeaFihn) February 7, 2020
In the coming years, France plans to spend €37 billion on maintaining and updating its 300 nuclear weapons in 2019-2025.
French post-Brexit push
Macron showed his intention to take on a post-Brexit nuclear role during his visit to Poland on Monday (2 February), where he said the updated French nuclear deterrence strategy would also “take into account the interests of other European countries”.
“I will focus on the doctrine (of French deterrence), but also on the procedures and modalities that I wish to propose on this topic to our partners in the coming months,” he said in Warsaw.
Meanwhile, Germany has recently also shown signs of willingness to get involved in issues regarding nuclear weapons.
On Monday, a senior member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party pleaded for the EU to create its own nuclear deterrence capability.
Germany should “consider cooperation with France regarding nuclear weapons,” Johann Wadephul said in an interview with EURACTIV’S media partner Tagesspiegel, and “should be prepared to participate in the nuclear deterrent force with its own capabilities and means.”
So far, there has been no intention from the bloc to create a joint European nuclear deterrent.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]