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Made in EU: the dangerous flirt with nuclear deterrence.

by Michelangelo Freyrie

Mr. Kaczynski is a well known advocate for clear cuts with the past: his agenda is centered on dismantling the current polish political system, perceived as corrupt and originating from the “amoral” compromises reached during the 1990s-transition period. It doesn’t therefore surprise that the wirepuller behind the PiS-led government has recently broken another taboo: this time, the one of European nuclear capability. The intention of arming the EU with the ultimate destructive power may sound suspicious if it comes from the mouth of a prominent euroskeptic, but it certainly shows how the display of force coming from Russia and the fears of a decreasing American commitment in Europe are given enough credit to make continental leaders consider countermeasures for the worst-case scenario, especially in those countries with a long history of conflict with Moscow.

Kaczynski didn’t elaborate further, stating that the massive expenses required for a common nuclear program greatly reduces the chances of such an initiative ever seeing the light of day. The idea however seems to have arisen interest in many European commentators, especially now that the idea of a Union-wide common defense has started gaining traction. With the UK on its way out and France unwilling to entrust its arsenal in a homebrew version of NATO’s nuclear sharing program, a Europewide nuclear project could provide an effective umbrella under which every member state could find protection without fearing the unwillingness of the US (or France for that matter) to respond to a possible Russian threat and “sacrificing Chicago (or Lyon) for Riga and Helsinki”. Still, the lack of funds wouldn’t be the only hurdle on the path towards the European bomb.

Let’s consider the unlikely (if not borderline unbelievable) scenario in which enough consensus has been reached on the idea that the acquisition of nuclear weapons represents a fundamental requirement for the survival of Europe. Before beginning to grasp any of the backlash such a move would provoke in voters and international partners, one has to consider the obvious technical challenges the EU would have to face, especially in the first stages of development.

The most obvious would be, of course, the management of the radioactive material necessary to assemble nuclear weaponry. Fission can be achieved using Uranium-235 or Plutonium-239, chemical elements obtainable through two distinct procedures, the first being the enrichment of natural Uranium and the second by synthetic production. However, neither of the two options can be considered easy paths for the acquisition of fissile material. Regarding Uranium, although Europe would surely be able to sustain the construction of enrichment plants, which require an average 4Gw of power to run, in 2008 “native” uranium mining supplied just below 3% of the total EU need, coming mainly from the Czech Republic and Romania. Other locations have been closed on the base of environmental concerns, and turning to plutonium would imply to relaunch and partially convert the declining nuclear power plant network, which is rapidly aging and whose further renewal (which would require years of investments) has been put on ice after the Fukushima disaster. For this reason, the agency responsible for the import of nuclear fuel, ESA (Euratom Supply Agency), would need a significant political upgrade from its current role as a market regulator to an entity clearly responding to the Commission, and fully integrated in the project created to manage the construction and management of the arsenal. Still, the EU would heavily rely on foreign supply of fissile material and be subject to the blackmailing of its suppliers around the world, partially defying the development of an arsenal to affirm geopolitical independence.

Even if these obstacles were to be overcome, a European bomb would still come at a political price. While it is true that the EU is not a signatory of the Non-proliferation treaty (NPT), the single member states involved would almost certainly come under scrutiny by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the enforcer of the treaty with a direct wire to the UN Security Council on matters of nuclear safety. This would affect both non-nuclear members, which are banned from acquiring nuclear weapons in any way, as well as established nuclear powers who are required “to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament […]”. Because of the composition of the IAEA’s board of governors, the European members would not suffice to block a vote in favor of advising the Security Council to sanction Europe and apply an embargo on nuclear material. This would result in a fracture inside the United Nations’ fundamental institutions, with a French (and possibly American) veto issued to protect actors actively and blatantly breaching an international treaty. We don’t need a Machiavelli to foresee the consequences this could have on the international effort to prevent other countries to start (or restart) their own nuclear programs: emptied of its legitimacy and less credible in its threats, we might see a new arms race unfold before our eyes.



To seriously think about a European nuclear deterrent in the current state of affairs also fails to consider the political and military institutions its deployment requires. The European common defense resembles a military force only in its nomenclature: while the pilot projects for European battalions (EUBG) are undoubtedly improving multilateral collaboration and, one day, they might be able to give to the joint foreign policy an effective tool to work with, the decision-making process is, by design, slow and prone to the opposition of single member states. To employ a single battalion, the approval request must go through the Political and Security Committee (PSC), the EU Military Committee (EUMC), the EU Military Staff (EUMS) and finally the Council. To bypass this complex iter, the nuclear deterrent should necessarily be put in the hands of a key figure entrusted by every member state, and given the weight of such a responsibility, possibly also enjoying the confidence of the European Parliament. A “federal” armed force and nuclear service would also be required to protect the warheads and manage the permissive activation links to prevent unilateral actions by single member states.

Would it be possible to create such a post in the European framework? It can be argued that, given the mere existence of nuclear weapons in the shared arsenal, it could be enough to make potential adversaries refrain from any provocation. To stock an arsenal without having an adequate operative structure and showing the political will to potentially employ it does however undermine the same principle of deterrence. If reprisals and tactical use aren’t included in the playbook of nuclear strategy, there’s no point in acquiring such an arsenal in the first place. It would surely be useless if the capability to respond using conventional weapons isn’t first extensively developed, as the current state of both the European armed forces and common defense currently show. “The essence of the deterrent message, however communicated, should be simply that we will do whatever we find necessary to achieve our aim —preferably the minimum necessary, but not less”. There’s no reason to doubt that a Europe with enough political unity to develop such a destructive potential would probably be capable to send this message and be strong enough to make enemy leaders incapable of ruling out the possibility of retaliation even if the initial offense was limited to a single member state. But if on one hand having a shared arsenal would ensure that no State Member would enjoy a strategic advantage over the others thanks to a joint management of the nuclear umbrella, on the other this fear in itself shows the lack of reciprocal trust such a step would require. It also remains questionable if pursuing nuclear capability would really bring more profits than costs to the continental defense: it has been rightfully argued that Russia doesn’t currently hold the capability to risk a full-scale confrontation with the West, limiting herself to blitz actions set to intimidate regional adversaries and knocking out possible counterweights to its negotiating power. The Crimean occupation and the destabilization of the Ukraine effectively tie the country to its function as a buffer with Europe, and similarly in Moscow was able to insert itself in the complex Syrian equation and limiting the American options to intervene. But the coercive use of the military option could become a dangerous sport if Europe was to bring the confrontation on a nuclear scale: if the need to maintain nuclear superiority became of capital concern, would this really benefit the world’s fragile balance of power? However worrying it may be, answering to Russia’s geopolitical ambitions with nuclear expansion would mean to escalate a conflict which, for now, can be hold under control with an appropriate response targeting the economic and demographic weaknesses of Moscow in the medium and long term.