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What Prospects for a Eurodeterrent?

Nuclear deterrence plays a crucial role in ensuring Europe’s security, yet the vast majority of the continent’s protection is not “European,” but rather comes from the United States as a result of NATO membership. While France and the U.K. do maintain their own nuclear arsenals, as Europe has started to push for more strategic autonomy in defense over recent years, there has been increasing discussion about the potential establishment of an independent, pan-European nuclear deterrent. However, such a drastic shift from the status quo may be infeasible in the near future, and is likely at the moment another instance of rhetoric outpacing reality when it comes to European defense.

Over the past half-decade, EU leaders have taken steps to advance EU security and defense capabilities, most notably by establishing a European Defense Fund for joint R&D and implementing Permanent Structured Cooperation on defense projects. While the EU’s many new initiatives leave no doubt that Europe is moving towards greater integration of its defense capabilities, there is less clarity about the end goal of these efforts. Divisions center around the degree to which Europe should continue to rely on the U.S. for its defense going forward. This problem is particularly salient when it comes to the issue of nuclear deterrence. Crucially, the EU’s two largest member states take divergent positions: while France has demonstrated openness toward a ‘Eurodeterrent’, Germany expresses much greater hesitance.

Indeed, nearly all the momentum for a Eurodeterrent has come from France. While it is true that French leaders have traditionally put great emphasis on the national scope of the country’s nuclear forces, President Emmanuel Macron has struck a different tone, on various instances indicating that he would be open to Europeanizing the French deterrent. During his February 2020 speech on French nuclear policy he called for a “strategic dialogue” with European partners on the future role of nuclear deterrence in guaranteeing regional security, noting the “authentically European dimension” of the French nuclear forces.

The prevailing attitude among German leaders could not be more different. Macron’s aforementioned speech was met with deafening silence in Berlin – when asked about Macron’s proposed European dimension to the French deterrent, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer expressed clear reservations, noting “we have been protected during the past decades by the [U.S.] nuclear umbrella as we know it and I don’t see why we should abandon this.” She took an even firmer position in an October 2020 speech, declaring: “We cannot provide our own nuclear deterrence, nor do we want to. This is why America must remain by our side and protect us.” As long as this remains the dominant view among German leaders, proposals for a joint European nuclear deterrent will be dead on arrival.

Even if this Franco-German disagreement were somehow to be resolved, many additional barriers stand in the way of a Eurodeterrent. One is the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit – until the U.K. and the EU resolve the terms of their future cooperation on security and defense policy, it will be difficult to make progress on the issue of a pan-European deterrent, especially given the extensive existing Anglo-French nuclear interdependence under the Lancaster Treaty. It is entirely unclear how this cooperation might continue in the case of a French-sourced Eurodeterrent.

Another important impediment is the potential for negative reaction from the United States. True, the incoming Biden administration seems likely to show greater openness to European pursuits of strategic autonomy than the Trump administration. This would undoubtedly be a positive sign for the future of transatlantic security cooperation, as only greater EU military integration can lead to a truly capable European pillar within NATO. Nevertheless, a future Republican government could very well return to a policy of undermining such efforts. If Europe wishes to move forward on a joint nuclear deterrent at some point in the future, much will therefore depend on the particular character of the U.S. administration at that time.

Finally, the administrative leadership of NATO has itself expressed clear reservations about the idea of a Eurodeterrent. Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg responded critically to Macron’s February 2020 speech, arguing: “We have to remember that we have a European nuclear deterrent today…It’s tried and tested, we exercise it, it’s institutionalized, and it is the ultimate security guarantee for Europe.” Such opposition is yet another sign that a Eurodeterrent will be extremely difficult to realize.

Today’s prospects for a Eurodeterrent seem nebulous at best, at least in the short- to medium-term. It is true that the possibility of a joint European nuclear deterrent has become increasingly conceivable in recent years, due in particular to the positions of President Macron. Yet the barriers remain too significant to surmount – especially the adamant resistance from German leaders. Still, none of these hurdles are necessarily permanent. Only time will tell if Macron’s ideas ultimately resonate. 


Nick Lokker

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