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Nuclear Disarmament

A Nuclear-Armed European Union? A Proposal Under Fire

UN Secretary-General António Guterres (center right) attends a Security Council meeting on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation on March 18, 2024. With geopolitical tensions escalating the risk of nuclear warfare to its highest point in decades, reducing and abolishing nuclear weapons is the only viable path to saving humanity. The UN chief told the Security Council delegates that he was deeply concerned about the continuous erosion of the international non-proliferation architecture.Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

UN Secretary-General António Guterres (center right) attends a Security Council meeting on nuclear disarmament and non-proliferation on March 18, 2024. With geopolitical tensions escalating the risk of nuclear warfare to its highest point in decades, reducing and abolishing nuclear weapons is the only viable path to saving humanity. The UN chief told the Security Council delegates that he was deeply concerned about the continuous erosion of the international non-proliferation architecture.Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

UNITED NATIONS, Jun 7 2024 (IPS) - The continued veiled threats from Russia, warning of nuclear attacks on Ukraine, have prompted some politicians in Europe to visualize a nuclear-armed European Union (EU).

But Volkert Ohm, Co-Chair of the International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms (IALANA) in Germany, told IPS that the call for nuclear weapons for the EU contradicts international law.

“The Advisory Opinion of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) is that even in extreme circumstances of self-defense, states may only defend themselves with weapons that fulfil the conditions of international humanitarian law.”

“Nuclear weapons do not fulfill them. Nuclear radiation is inherent in any nuclear weapon; thus, “clean” nuclear weapons cannot exist. Debates and statements by politicians in the EU, and particularly in Germany, are neglecting international law on many levels,” he pointed out.

Facing the potential return of Donald Trump to the White House, the head of the EU’s biggest political grouping is calling for Europeans to prepare for war without support from the United States and to build their own nuclear umbrella, according to POLITICO, a US-based online publication.

Manfred Weber, leader of the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), has described Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin as “the two who set the framework” for 2024.

The 27 member states of the European Union (EU) are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden.

But France is the only EU member that is also one of the world’s nine nuclear powers, along with the US, UK, China, Russia, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea.

John Burroughs, Vice President, International Association of Lawyers Against Nuclear Arms and Senior Analyst, Lawyers Committee on Nuclear Policy, told IPS that interest in some quarters in the European Union (EU) or some European entity acquiring nuclear weapons stems in part from the illegal Russian invasion of Ukraine accompanied by illegal nuclear threats.

But the solution is not some form of increased European reliance on nuclear arms. Rather, it is bringing Russia’s war on Ukraine to an end soon, which would involve painful compromises on Ukraine’s part, he said.

“That would eliminate the very real potential for nuclear war arising out of the conflict, and it would open the way for getting arms control and disarmament negotiations with Russia back on track.”

This, he pointed out, is a far better path than the acquisition of nuclear weapons by the EU or another European entity. That would violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, as the IALANA Germany statement points out, reinforce nuclear arms racing already underway, and tend to greenlight the spread of nuclear weapons in other regions.

“The interest in European nuclear weapons has also been spurred by concern over statements by former and possible future US President Donald Trump implying US disengagement from NATO. This concern is exaggerated.”

The US government as a whole is deeply committed to NATO, as is illustrated by the fact that Congress passed and President Biden signed a law requiring that a withdrawal from NATO be approved by Congress. It is also true that French and British nuclear arsenals are available for defense of Europe through NATO or otherwise, said Burroughs.

“While they are not as large and diverse as the US or Russian arsenals, it does not take many nuclear weapons to cause Russia or any other country to think twice about aggression. More fundamentally, as the IALANA Germany statement conveys, reliance on nuclear arms, US or European, is incompatible with a law-governed world, and increasing such reliance is going in the wrong direction,” he declared.

“We want NATO, but we also have to be strong enough to be able to defend ourselves without it or in times of Trump,” Weber said in a phone interview with POLITICO on the return leg of a train trip to Kyiv.

“Regardless of who is elected in America, Europe must be able to stand on its own in terms of foreign policy and be able to defend itself independently,” the influential German conservative said.

That brought him to the vexing question of European nuclear defenses. NATO currently relies heavily on U.S. nuclear warheads, which are deployed on six military air bases in Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey, according to POLITICO.

“Europe must build deterrence; we must be able to deter and defend ourselves,” he said. “We all know that when push comes to shove, the nuclear option is the really decisive one.”

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Putin has significantly upped his nuclear rhetoric and regularly made veiled atomic threats toward the West.

Within the EU, the only country that would be able to play a larger role is France, which has about 300 nuclear warheads.

The other European nuclear power—but outside the EU—is Britain, with fewer than some 260 warheads. “Perhaps, just to make the options clear, we are now at a point where, after the years and decade of Brexit, we should open a constructive dialogue with our British friends,” Weber continued.

Jacqueline Cabasso, Executive Director, Western States Legal Foundation, Oakland, California, told IPS that in light of the Russian Federation’s illegal war of aggression in Ukraine and its attendant drumbeat of nuclear threats, a number of former German government officials and politicians have called for the European Union to acquire its own nuclear arsenal.

For example, former Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer of the Green Party told Der Speigel last year, “As long as we have a neighbor Russia that follows Putin’s imperial ideology, we cannot do without deterring this Russia.”

Asked whether deterrence includes Germany acquiring its own nuclear weapons, he said, “That is indeed the most difficult question.” Noting that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin is “also working with nuclear blackmail,” he said: “Should the Federal Republic of Germany possess nuclear weapons? No. Europe? Yes. The EU needs its own nuclear deterrent.”

As pointed out in the IALANA Germany statement, such plans would violate the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and other applicable laws. But more alarming is the growing normalization of nuclear threats and legitimization of nuclear proliferation suggested by Fischer and others, said Cabasso.

At a time when all of the nuclear armed states are qualitatively and, in some cases, quantitatively upgrading their nuclear arsenals, a new multipolar arms race is underway, and the dangers of wars among nuclear armed states are growing, adding more nuclear-armed actors to the world stage is a truly terrifying prospect, she pointed out.

Germany and other EU members should rebuff any suggestion of acquiring nuclear weapons and take the lead in rejecting reliance on nuclear weapons, use every diplomatic means at their disposal to lower the temperature with Russia and bring the Ukraine war to an end, and promote negotiations among nuclear-armed states to begin the process of nuclear disarmament, declared Cabasso.

Dr M.V. Ramana, Professor and Simons Chair in Disarmament, Global and Human Security School of Public Policy and Global Affairs at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, told IPS that the vast majority of the countries that are part of the European Union have signed the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty (NPT) as non-nuclear-weapon State Parties.

According to Article 2 of the NPT, each “non-nuclear-weapon State Party to the Treaty undertakes not to receive the transfer from any transferor whatsoever of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or of control over such weapons or explosive devices directly or indirectly.”

Likewise, nuclear-weapon State Parties to the NPT that are either part of the EU (i.e., France) or not (e.g., the United States) are obligated under Article 1 of the NPT “not to transfer to any recipient whatsoever nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices or control over such weapons or explosive devices directly or indirectly; and not in any way to assist, encourage, or induce any non-nuclear-weapon State to manufacture or otherwise acquire nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices, or control over such weapons or explosive devices,” he said.

Even without going into the details of who might control these proposed “nuclear weapons for the EU”, it is clear that such an arsenal would contradict the spirit of the NPT and weaken the already weak non-proliferation and disarmament norms.

As IALANA says, EU states should distance themselves from this idea and work for a world free of nuclear weapons, declared Ramana.

Note: This article is brought to you by IPS Noram, in collaboration with INPS Japan and Soka Gakkai International, in consultative status with UN ECOSOC.

IPS UN Bureau Report

 


  
 
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