Nuclear Weapons in the Hands of the European Union?

by Stephen Bryen

Appeared first at the American Center for Democracy website (www.acdemocracy.org)

The European Union does not have an army, navy or air force but it is now considering embarking on a joint European nuclear deterrent force. Why now and what for?

Trying to understand this idea is not very easy.  Its origin ostensibly is a lack of trust in the United States’s deterrent.  But this is a phony reason even though it would appeal to the addled minds of anti-Trump European leftist politicians.

These are, of course, the same people who spent their younger lives opposing Pershing and cruise missile deployments in Europe.  But short-range nuclear systems including the Pershing IIs, the U.S. supplied ground-launched cruise missiles, and the Russian SS-20s were all eliminated under the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Force Treaty (INF) that was ratified in 1988 and where all the intermediate and short-range missiles were eliminated by 1991.

Soviet inspectors and their American escorts stand among several dismantled Pershing II missiles as they view the destruction of other missile components. The missiles are being destroyed in accordance with the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. Photo by Author MSGT Jose Lopez Jr., Department of Defense

The INF was a treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union (now Russia). Other European states either have nuclear weapons and missiles or may have them.  Most famous of these are France and the United Kingdom.  France’s nuclear forces are part of its “Force de frappe” that includes ICBMs and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.  France also has nuclear bombs and may have other unannounced delivery systems for a nuclear strike.

Britain has around 120 usable nuclear warheads most for Trident missiles on British nuclear-powered submarines.  It also has a “dual key” system with the United States that is part of what is called Project E.   Under this project, Britain and the U.S. share a few nuclear weapons programs including nuclear artillery, nuclear mines, nuclear gravity bombs for RAF aircraft and nuclear depth bombs for maritime use.

Other European Union member countries may have hidden nuclear weapons programs such as Italy, Germany, and Sweden. But the EU’s sudden nuclear deterrence plan is eyeing the only reasonably independent nuclear capability, which is France.

Thus, the EU is proposing to make the French nuclear deterrent a European nuclear deterrent.

But how would it work?  Would the EU take over command of France’s Force de frappe?  If this is what the geniuses in the EU are thinking, they can forget it.  France would never allow its nuclear weapons to be under any other command authority except their own.  If that happened, France would virtually disappear as an independent country since its entire strategic rationale rests on its nuclear force.  The decision to arm France with nuclear weapons was made in 1954 by the administration of Pierre Mendès-France in the Fourth Republic, but it was Charles De Gaulle who built it up on the theory that France needed an independent deterrent and could not trust the United States to use nuclear weapons to defend French territory.

Mirage IV Force de frappe CI at Kleine Brogel Air Base, Belgium 2005 photo by Alfvan Beem

Surprisingly, it is De Gaulle’s fundamental operating theory that the EU is trying to appropriate.

But France is a country, and the EU is not.  Moreover, the EU would have to strike a deal with France for, without such a deal, the idea of an EU deterrent in wishful thinking.

Why would France want to become a tool of the EU unless, of course, it totally controlled the EU?  And why would France come to anyone’s defense, since their Force de frappe was never aimed at supporting anyone else?  Would France allow a “common European command” to control its nuclear weapons? Would France defend Poland if the Russians launched a nuclear strike?  Or Estonia?  Or Ukraine?  It would be foolish for anyone to believe such an idea.  France deliberately kept itself out of NATO for years and until relatively recently was hostile to the idea of U.S. guarantees, either nuclear or conventional.  France’s nuclear deterrent is to protect French territory.  Is there any reason to believe it could be otherwise now?

The EU proposed but not financed new command center reflects the arrogance of a dying institution which pretends to be a sovereign military force when it is neither military nor sovereign nor likely to last very long if the tectonic political shifts arising in Europe pan out.  The British are getting out, although the process is a rocky one. But the British nuclear deterrent is unalterably tied to the United States.  If France goes the way of Le Pen, then the EU is toast.  Even Merkel can’t be sure she will be around much longer.

The EU remonstrations about being a nuclear power are not credible and only act to corrosively undermine NATO at a critical time.