SPD leadership reignites German debate on US nuclear weapons

Already in 2009 there were demonstrations against US nuclear weapons in Büchel, here in front of the CDU headquarters. [EPA | Rainer Jensen]

Germany should “exclude the stationing of US nuclear weapons in the future,” Rolf Mützenich, the leader of the Social Democrats (SPD) in the Bundestag, has demanded. Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has hit back, but other SPD politicians intend to question Germany’s role in NATO’s nuclear strategy.

“Nuclear weapons on German territory do not heighten our security, just the opposite,” Mützenich, said in an interview with EURACTIV’s media partner Der Tagesspiegel on Sunday (3 May).

“The time has come for Germany to rule out a future stationing. After all, other countries have done so without questioning NATO,” he added.

SPD co-chair Norbert Walter Borjans echoed his comments, saying he “takes a clear position against the stationing, control over their use and even more so against the use of nuclear weapons.”

But the German centre left’s move to reopen an old debate about whether to remain under Washington’s protective nuclear umbrella, prompted a backlash from Christian Democrat  ministers, the dominant partner in the governing coalition.

“Unilateral steps that undermine trust will not bring us any closer to the goal of a nuclear weapons-free world,” Heiko Maas said a day after Mützenich’s comments.

If such steps were taken, such as a sudden departure from nuclear sharing, “Germany would no longer be sitting at the table” in disarmament processes, said Maas.

 

A “renunciation of nuclear sharing” by Germany would have “devastating consequences” for pan-European security, Anita Schäfer, member of the Bundestag’s disarmament committee, told EURACTIV.

It would contradict the coalition agreement, which states that “successful disarmament talks create the conditions for a withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Germany and Europe”.

Karl-Heinz Brunner, SPD chair of the disarmament committee, also downplayed Mützenich’s statements, saying he could “naturally” understand they had led to nervousness, but that Mützenich would not be in favour of unilateral expulsion of US nuclear weapons, even if he “perhaps said it in a misleading way”.

“Mützenich wants an open discussion” about how much say Germany has in the use of these nuclear weapons, Brunner told EURACTIV.

Not the only battleground country

US nuclear weapons have been stored in Germany since 1955, but how many there still are at present remains a secret prompting regular debates about the weapons and Germany’s role in NATO’s ‘nuclear sharing’ strategy.

The International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) believes there  are about 20 warheads based at Büchel airbase in Rhineland-Palatinate.

Earlier this year, a similar debate shook NATO-host Belgium, when lawmakers in January narrowly rejected a resolution asking for the removal of US nuclear weapons stationed in the country and joining the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

Belgium debates phase-out of US nuclear weapons on its soil

It’s one of Belgium’s worst kept secrets. Lawmakers on Thursday (16 January) narrowly rejected a resolution asking for the removal of US nuclear weapons stationed in the country and joining the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

A July 2019 draft report, published by the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, confirmed one of Belgium’s worst kept secrets listing the country alongside several other European countries as a base for storing US nuclear weapons as part of NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement.

According to a leaked copy, before its final paragraph was replaced, the report stated:

“In the context of NATO, the United States is deploying around 150 nuclear weapons in Europe, in particular B61 free-bombs, which can be deployed by both US and Allied planes. These bombs are stored in six American and European bases: Kleine Brogel in Belgium, Büchel in Germany, Aviano and Ghedi-Torre in Italy, Volkel in the Netherlands and Inçirlik in Turkey.”

The later updated version of the report did away with the specifications, but the leak confirmed what had been assumed for some time.

Fighter jets as bone of contention

Gabriela Heinrich, SPD deputy leader in the Bundestag, told EURACTIV she also wants to openly discuss the order of the F-18 fighter planes, with which CDU defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer caused a domestic political stir in April.

Social Democrats accused Kramp-Karrenbauer of having promised the F-18 jet purchase, which are capable of transporting the nuclear warheads, to US Defense Secretary Mark Esper, without consulting her coalition partner.

“I don’t know how the assumption came into the world that one would have more influence on the use of the US nuclear bombs if they also provided a carrier system,” Heinrich said.

“The fact is: with the exception of France, all NATO countries sit equally in the Nuclear Planning Group, whether they provide aircraft or not,” she added.

Risky withdrawal

Geopolitically, a US nuclear weapons withdrawal from Germany would be risky for all of Europe, Suda David-Wilps, deputy director of the German Marshall Fund in Berlin, told EURACTIV.

“Some states could benefit from this, like Poland, because the US can shift its resources there instead,” said David-Wilps.

Yet the loss of nuclear deterrence from Germany could endanger European security in the long term. “Germany is not just any country, it lies at the heart of Europe,” she said. A withdrawal of US nuclear weapons would mean “a massive change for the security situation of the Euro-Atlantic Alliance.”

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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