An Uncertain Future for European Defence

15 April, 2020

President Macron‘s visions for a new European nuclear strategy come at just the right moment. In the wake of Brexit and growing ruptures in the transatlantic alliance, EU members are more willing than ever to invest in a more integrated European defence architecture with a European-wide role for French nuclear deterrence. Yet, in order for the project to succeed, Macron needs to convince his European counterparts that his prime concern is European security rather than legitimising French nuclear power. Moreover, there is a risk that immediate priorities will distract the EU from consolidating European defence policies.

Barely a week after the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, President Macron laid out his vision of French and European security policy at the War College in Paris. His most ambitious and interesting plan is a “strategic dialogue (…) on the role played by France’s nuclear deterrence in our collective security”. This can be understood as a stronger European defence with a Europe-wide role for the French nuclear arsenal. President Macron made clear: “European partners which are willing to walk that road can be associated with the exercises of French deterrence forces.” However, Macron abstained from providing further details on the kind of association he envisages. And so did Elysee sources following his speech.

The idea is not new. Before Macron, several French Presidents had advocated a stronger European defence architecture that relies on European nuclear weapons rather than American ones. Yet, in the past, European countries (Germany in particular) never seriously considered this idea as they were cautious not to jeopardise transatlantic security cooperation. This time though, the geopolitical setting requires Europeans to reconsider the role of French deterrence within the EU. Amid growing distrust of the US as guarantor of European security, an increasingly insecure international environment and the withdrawal of the UK as its formerly strongest military power, French security guarantees are more valuable than ever.

This became clear when 25 EU member states established a Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence (PESCO) in December 2017, following the inauguration of President Trump and the launch of Brexit negotiations earlier that year. Since then, joint PESCO projects have grown in both number and ambition – from a European medical command and joint training and certification centres to collaborative warfare capabilities and joint surveillance projects.

Then German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen was a key advocate and facilitator of PESCO. As Commission President she will remain committed to greater European defence integration including a strengthened strategic culture and is in a unique position to mediate between French, German and European interests in this regard. As we have often seen in the past, if France and Germany act in concert, other members follow and the EU advances as a whole.

Nevertheless, the Franco-German engine has its limits. In order for his plan to materialise, Macron needs to build further trust with fellow European leaders (in particular Central and Eastern European ones) and frame his proposal as a genuine offer for greater European security rather than an attempt at French power retention. The timing of Macron’s bid (shortly before the upcoming Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) review conference in April/May) has raised suspicions that he is eager to legitimise French nuclear power by emphasising the importance of French deterrence for the EU. Along with other nuclear powers France continues to show open resistance to the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW), the latest tool of the nuclear non-proliferation regime, that seeks to prohibit and gradually eliminate the existence of nuclear weapons.

This became once again obvious in his speech at the War College in Paris in which he made clear that “France will not sign any treaty on the prohibition of nuclear weapons” and he will not “set France the moral objective of disarming our democracies while other powers, or even dictatorships, would be maintaining or developing their nuclear weapons.” Macron’s speech was delivered to a French audience. Yet, his strong French-centred pro-nuclear rhetoric risks creating mistrust and alienating the other non-nuclear members of the EU.

Distraction and short-term orientation in the EU are further obstacles to Macron‘s endeavour. The all-encompassing fight against the coronavirus consumes huge amounts of resources. The end of the UK‘s transition period is imminent, but important legal and political questions remain unresolved. Finally, the global digital race requires the EU to prioritise updating its competition framework, solving the 5G debate and passing AI legislation. These imminent priorities could end up distracting the EU from strengthening its defence capabilities and security framework in the coming years. Yet, as the international environment becomes increasingly insecure and unpredictable, this short-termist approach may well backfire. There is no doubt that reacting to crises takes priority and is unavoidable. But the EU is well advised not to neglect consolidation in order to be prepared for and perhaps even able to prevent future crises.

To be clear, further EU defence consolidation is possible without a formal European role of the French nuclear arsenal. However, if meant and framed in a genuine way, the French offer could stimulate debate, build trust and thus promote greater EU defence cooperation in an increasingly uncertain international environment.

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