As nationalism and great power competition make a comeback on the international scene, nuclear weapons remain a key currency of power and are once again brandished as an instrument of influence. All nuclear-weapons possessors have shown intent to maintain and modernize their arsenals. Arms competitions are alive in Asia; there are echoes of a new Cold War between the United States and Russia; North Korea is turning into a full-fledged nuclear power and the Iranian nuclear crisis is still unresolved. Meanwhile, dissatisfaction with the lack of progress in disarmament has led to the conclusion of a treaty banning nuclear weapons, the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) – which no nuclear possessor intends to sign.
Yet in this fast-moving strategic environment, the foundations of the European nuclear order remain unchanged. There are two European nuclear powers – France and the United Kingdom – as well as five “NATO nuclear sharing” countries – i.e. non-nuclear countries hosting US weapons on their territory, which could be loaded on their own fighter-bombers (Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey). These can carry the US B-61 gravity bomb, a new version of which is to be deployed in Europe in 2025 on newly-acquired F-35 fighter-bombers (by Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands) and perhaps on other types of aircraft. The United States, the United Kingdom and France all contribute to the overall deterrence of the Atlantic Alliance. However, only the former two assign nuclear weapons to NATO and explicitly extend a nuclear protection umbrella over their allies. France’s independent nuclear choice was seen by Paris as incompatible with military integration of its deterrent force.
The role of nuclear weapons on the continent has always been a topic of debate among Europeans and within most countries. The first part of the 2020s will witness a new round of such debate, for several distinct reasons.
The United Kingdom has left the European Union (EU) and France will remain the only EU nuclear power. While this has no immediate strategic and even less operational consequences, there will be symbolic and political implications. Paris will feel lonelier when discussing nuclear policy questions in the EU – for instance at the occasion of the important Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conferences, which happen every five years. The UK departure also implies that any serious discussion of nuclear deterrence questions among Europeans could hardly happen within the Union’s formal institutions – i.e. without London’s participation.
At the same time, the UK’s new, more muscular nuclear deterrence stance, embodied in its 2021 Integrated Review, brings London closer to Paris than it has been over the past thirty years in terms of nuclear policy. However, a lingering shadow exists on the long-term sustainability of the UK deterrent in case of a Scotland breakaway, given that the only UK submarine base is located there and alternatives would be very costly.
Three European countries – Austria, Ireland and Malta, which are EU but not NATO members – have signed the new TPNW, which entered into force in January 2021. Although it is unlikely that several others will follow any time soon, national debates on the subject are ongoing or should be expected, including because of the moral support of major religious leaders. According to some polls, the Treaty is quite popular (more than 70% favoring their country becoming a signatory) among Nordic – Finnish, Swedish, Norwegian – populations.
Germany’s official stance on nuclear deterrence may be affected by the outcome of the September elections: the Green party’s leadership favors ending German participation to nuclear sharing and signing the TPNW. While Berlin currently envisions acquiring 45 US F/A-18 fighter-bombers to replace part of its ageing fleet of Tornado – a decision that would allow it to maintain its NATO nuclear sharing mission – no formal decision is expected before 2022.
Turkey is in a different place. Ankara does not openly challenge the presence of US nuclear weapons on the strategically located Inçirlik base (mostly for use by the US Air Force for conventional operations in the Middle East). But increasing tensions between the current leadership and its European neighbors, as well as with the United States – even more since the advent of the Biden administration – have planted the seed for a possible major political crisis within NATO.