2. Eyes wide shut
BSSB.BE ecfr.eu 31/01/2019
Balkans France Germany
* « There is too much government today. We’ve got to remember the government should be by the people, of the people, and for the people.» Ray Bradbury
Silence above, ignorance below
European attitudes are a patchwork of opinions: the United Kingdom and France are nuclear powers in their own right, with public opinion more or less solidly behind this status. The historical experience of Poland and the Czech Republic leads these states to be more confidently supportive of nuclear deterrence.
Countries such as Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany have seen civil society clash with their governments’ decisions around hosting nuclear weapons. Ireland and Austria are active campaigners for the abolition of nuclear weapons.
- Despite all this, most EU member states have two things in common in this matter. First, nearly all of them share an official, if ostensible, commitment to reducing nuclear weapons: research for this paper revealed that only three member states harbour reservations about the goal of nuclear disarmament.
This is all while many of these countries remain within NATO, which is of course underpinned by the potential of nuclear-backed intervention via Article 5. The potential tension between this pro-disarmament stance and the enjoyment of the US nuclear umbrella is something yet to fully play out.
- Second, nuclear weapons have little salience in the public imagination. On the occasions in the late cold war period when European governments were obliged to make difficult decisions about nuclear weapons, these became fraught and contested in the country at large as well as in parliament. But with the disappearance of the Soviet threat, Western governments and populations became less obliged to think, and argue, about nuclear weapons with the degree of heat and rigour that they had had to prior to 1989.
In Europe, most were more than content to enjoy the happier and more hopeful international environment, and to simply dismiss nuclear worries from their minds. Rather than peace underpinned by nuclear weapons, as many cold war leaders characterised it, Europeans began to enjoy peace with nuclear weapons still around. Nuclear weapons disappeared from the public debate.
The end of the cold war led to an effort to reduce the total number of nuclear warheads in the world, with Russia and the US doing substantially more heavy lifting in this regard even if they still possess considerably more weaponsthan France and the UK, which have both moved significantly towards minimal deterrence.
If anything, the public today is rather inclined towards disarmament – which may partly explain its relative lack of concern as the total number of weapons in the world fell, although it is hard to say that Russia and the US won many plaudits for their efforts either. If a shift in public attitudes does now come about, this may emanate from high-level activism. In the context of the TPNW, the decision to award the 2017 Nobel Peace Prize to the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons hints at a new wave of abolitionism.
This also finds stronger expression in national politics: last year’s German federal election saw the Social Democrat challenger for chancellor promise the removal of US nuclear weapons from the country. And, in the UK, a unilateralist disarmer is now leader of the Labour Party and Scotland’s ruling Scottish National Party is firmly opposed to nuclear weapons.
The current fraught and unstable international environment has not led the wider public to fret about nuclear issues – yet – nor for their governments to take the lead on this. The disconnect between public leanings and government policies appears to have induced governments to keep discussion of nuclear matters low key. If this is the case, it seems to have worked. But Europe probably has the ingredients for popular opposition to nuclear deployments to emerge once again.
Europe’s nuclear families: cousins and rivals
To understand the situation better, ECFR’s network of 28 associate researchers carried out investigations into European attitudes towards nuclear weapons. These comprised interviews with more than 100 policymakers and analysts, and research into policy documents, academic discourse, media analysis, and opinion polls.
The research questions centred on what countries today think of nuclear deterrence, how they assess nuclear threats to their own security, and what action they are considering in response. The data reflects what officials and experts believe to be the position of their respective countries on these topics. The country-by-country analyses are contained in the annex.
- Perhaps the most striking finding of the survey concerns the immutability of attitudes across Europe. Most, if not all, European countries see recent events as proving their traditional attitudes right.
- They conclude that, despite the changed environment, there is little need for further reconsideration of their position on nuclear matters. This, therefore, provides little impetus for governments to break their silence and dispel public ignorance.
- EU member states continue to span the full spectrum from committed nuclear powers to determined abolitionists – and they fall into five groups depending on their attitude to nuclear deterrence: True Believers, Neutrals, Conflicted,Pragmatists, and Conformists.
At one end of the spectrum lie the True Believers: France and the UK, accompanied by Poland and Romania.
The first two are nuclear weapons states, and plan to stay that way: even with an avowed unilateral disarmer leading the opposition, most Labour members of parliament backed the renewal of Trident in a 2016 vote. Since the end of the cold war, France and the UK have modernised their nuclear arsenals while also pursuing reductions in their size under doctrines of minimum deterrence. Each has also limited where its weapons are deployed.
Poland and Romania also belong to the True Believers camp because they are greatly preoccupied with Russia and are active in seeking out reassurance from the US and even increased physical presence on their soil from the superpower. Both countries host a rotating brigade and elements of NATO’s missile defence system, and Poland recently offered to pay for a new US base – “Fort Trump” – as part of a bilateral arrangement. That said, these countries’ commitment to nuclear deterrence does not involve hosting US nuclear weapons on their territory.
All four countries rank nuclear threats as important in their strategic assessments and have also determined that nuclear deterrence should play an important part in their defence and national security strategy. In addition, unlike others that may share this approach, such as Germany, public opinion in their countries is behind them, meaning they are not conflicted about their commitment to nuclear deterrence.
At the other end of the spectrum are the Neutrals: Ireland, Austria, Malta, Cyprus, and Finland (all non-NATO members of the EU). The first two pride themselves on their anti-nuclear tradition: over the last few years they proactively sponsored the TPNW at the UN and signed it. One of Ireland’s five stated core foreign policies is to achieve a world free of nuclear weapons in addition to promoting disarmament.Austria has been even more active on this front: it ratified the TPNW in May, and it has also been a vocal and intransigent supporter of the abolitionist agenda, holding the view that only a generalised abandonment and condemnation of such weapons can halt their proliferation.
- The publication is not an editorial. It reflects solely the point of view and argumentation of the author. The publication is presented in the presentation. Start in the previous issue. The original is available at: ecfr.eu