A Soon-To-Be Global Nuclear Leader? The European Union in Global Nuclear Politics


Ashton Jalili 6 3
European Union Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton (L) meets with Iran's Chief Negotiator Saeed Jalili in Moscow, June 18, 2012.
Photo credit: 
REUTERS/Kirill Kudryavtsev/Pool
“The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience, of delays, is coming to a close; in its place we are entering a period of consequences.” -- Winston Churchill

Since its inception, the European Union has come under criticism that it has consistently shied away from taking full-fledged global political and security responsibilities despite its role as an economic powerhouse on the world stage. The EU, its critics argue, has been content to linger in the protective limbo provided by the United States and NATO, while conveniently voicing some ethical disagreements against the unilateral posture of its trans-Atlantic defender, without ever formulating any specific alternatives.

For the last three decades of the 20th century, the European Union largely looked inward to the management of its complex and never-ending integration process. At best, it sought bland diplomatic engagement with its unstable southern and eastern neighbors, while relying on American leadership elsewhere. As a result, the EU has taken a backseat on significant issues, including the global fight against terrorism and the handling of the Middle East peace process, over which American interests has largely predominated.

In the realm of nuclear politics, too, the EU has played “catch-up” to the United States, even though some of its members had thriving nuclear power-generation industries, and the second-largest nuclear exporter in the world – France – was one of its core founders. Tom Sauer, a European scholar based at the University of Antwerpen, argued: “Europe, in contrast to the United States, acted for a long time as if it were living on another planet. Each time the European States seemed to catch up in the field of non-proliferation, the United States moves to a higher gear. Europe always ran behind. When the European Community (EC) member-states decided to ratify the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), in the mid 1970s, the U.S. was already pushing for stricter control in the frameworks of the nuclear supplier groups. When the EC agreed with the Nuclear Supplier Group (NSG) guidelines, the Carter administration had further hardened its policies. When the EC gradually established non-proliferation policy in the ‘80s and in the ‘90s, the U.S. changed the analytical framework by introducing the concept of counter-proliferation. The latter placed more emphasis on military instruments in the fight against terrorism”.

The EU’s reluctance to take a more muscular role in global nuclear governance is rooted in both institutional deficiencies and acute political disagreements among its member-states.  First, the enlargement process, which has brought 27 countries together under a single European flag in a 40-year-long transition period, has demanded significant effort for internal institution-building and policy harmonization, which in turn has reduced the ability of the EU to formulate foreign policy strategies and to engage proactively with the rest of the world.

More important, at the political level, reaching consensus on the features and contours of a European nuclear policy has proven particularly contentious and divisive for the EU and its member-states. Establishing an EU nuclear strategy entails tackling a series of complex issues, nuclear disarmament in particular, on which Europeans have held highly disparate views even before the eastern enlargement process of 2004. And at present, the EU comprises two nuclear weapons states (France and the UK) that remain skeptical on the possibility of moving toward the total elimination of nuclear weapons, five other countries that are currently hosting NATO nuclear-armed bases (Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Greece) and harbor substantial disagreements on the future of such weapons, and a widely diverse bloc of countries adamantly opposed to nuclear weapons (notably Sweden, Germany, Spain), nuclear energy for peaceful use (Italy) or both (Austria and Ireland).

Given these political constraints, EU policy-makers have consistently acted upon a “lowest common denominator” rationale, and have adopted a low-key position on nuclear-related matters to avoid stirring unnecessary controversies among member-states. This has inevitably translated into modest positions, timid decisions and compromised policies.

Things have started to improve, at least on the front of nuclear proliferation. In the 1990s, two important achievements altered the institutional landscape of nuclear cooperation within the European Union. First, France’s late accession to the NPT (which the country ratified in 1992) finally freed the EU to develop common positions within major international nuclear forums, giving it credibility and influence as a single unified actor.   Second, the discovery in 1991 of Iraq’s clandestine nuclear program provided much-needed impetus for the three main European nuclear exporters – Germany, the UK and France – to align their efforts to develop EU dual-use-technology export-control regulations. That policy adopted in 1994 and revised and strengthened in 2000 and 2009, was the first substantial political step taken by the EU both to acknowledge the significant threat posed by nuclear proliferation and to prevent further cases of nuclear proliferation in its neighboring area and beyond.

Building on these important achievements, the EU took on a more explicit global outlook during the first decade of the new century. A string of initiatives – the adoption in 2003 of the EU strategy against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (henceforth EU WMD Strategy, an enhanced European role in the Iranian nuclear crisis (2003 to present), and the launch of an EU-designed and -led nuclear security agenda (2010) – underscore a significant change within the European Union in its approach to responding to and preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

First, a clear shift within the European Union has given security considerations primacy over economic calculations in exporting and trading dual-use technology.  Throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s, both Germany and France, in particular, were engaged in nuclear exporting without sufficient appreciation of the potential risks associated with the spread of nuclear technology. But increasingly in the ‘80s, and much more explicitly since the ‘90s, after severe proliferation crises in Iraq, Libya and North Korea, these countries have assumed a much more responsible and cautious position as nuclear exporters. The turn toward nuclear cooperation based on security factors was made explicit in the 2003 EU WMD strategy through the establishment of the so-called “proliferation clause”. The clause states that any EU trade agreement with a non-EU third party will be halted if the contracting party is in breach of one or more international nuclear non-proliferation treaties and agreements.  Such a breach would automatically lead to cancelation of the agreement and cessation of all cooperation.

Second, the EU has shifted its focus from a regional to a global nuclear approach. In its 2003 EU WMD strategy, the EU clearly states that “proliferation of WMD is a global threat which requires a global approach”. While priority will still be given to nuclear non-proliferation in European neighborhoods (the Middle East, Central Asia and North Africa in particular), the EU’s commitment to halt and prevent proliferation is global. To signal its willingness to act as a global player, the EU has embraced the U.S.-led global counter-proliferation strategy as well as America’s global nuclear-security agenda to fight nuclear terrorism. In addition to lending its support to U.S. measures such as the  Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and UN Resolution 1540  (the preliminary draft of which was produced through Franco-American cooperation), the EU has also launched parallel initiatives such as the Chemical-Biological-Radiological-Nuclear (CBRN) Risk Mitigation Centres of Excellence. This project, perhaps the most ambitious nuclear-security initiative ever launched at the global level, authorizes six regional centers around the world to provide capacity-building training programs for emerging countries to develop appropriate border and export control policies in the fight against nuclear terrorism and to minimize illicit smuggling of sensitive dual-use technology to both non-state actors and rogue states.

The third EU shift has been from a soft-power approach to a harder, more coercive approach to WMD proliferation. The EU’s WMD strategy introduces the concept of “effective multilateralism” and explicitly states that “when measures – such as political dialogue and diplomatic pressure – have failed, coercive measures under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and international law could be envisioned”.  The shift in rhetoric has been matched by actions. In the handling of the 2003 Iranian crisis, the EU’s main approach had been one of constructive engagement, but increasingly, and particularly from 2008, during the tenure of the EU Presidency by France, the EU has shifted to a much harder stance, calling for and adopting a broad range of economic sanctions.

The costs of global nuclear leadership

Although the changes in the EU’s nuclear approach are significant – and welcome – in an era of increasing nuclear-technology diffusion, they have nonetheless generated some negative consequences that have been acknowledged only marginally by EU officials. Such externalities must be tackled and resolved if EU global nuclear engagement is to remain credible and sustainable over time. Four types of negative externalities can be identified.

The first are political consequences. The increasing engagement of the EU in global nuclear governance has deepened the divide between the main European nuclear players and the rest of the member-states by institutionalizing de facto an EU Directorate comprising France, Germany and the United Kingdom. While the directorate had always been at work within the EU, particularly in matters related to foreign and security policy, for several years it has remained an informal arrangement, usually disguised within bilateral or trilateral talks among the “Big Three”. Yet, the establishment of the EU3+3 (the three EU states plus the United States, Russia and China) to lead Iran negotiations has provided a quasi-officialization to its existence, engendering resentment from other European players and raising questions about its legitimacy within the European Union institutional architecture. Although the majority of the EU member-states seem to be willing to cooperate under an EU Directorate, a few have at times voiced their dissatisfaction. For instance, Italy, the fourth-largest economy within the European Union, openly complained about the Big Three’s handling of the Iranian nuclear row and about its exclusion from the negotiations. Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi clearly highlighted Italians’ disapproval during a 2007 interview with the German Newspaper Die Welt, when he stated, “Tehran and Rome are significant business partners and I have not realized why Italy, as an important European player, should not enter negotiations with Iran over the nuclear issue." To mitigate internal friction, the High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy (Javier Solana of Spain through 2009, succeeded by Catherine Ashton of the UK) has been invited to lead negotiations to ensure coordination between the Big Three and the rest of the Union. But tensions will likely flare up again as the EU continues to deepen its engagement with nuclear issues in the future.

The second issue is institutional.  As EU involvement in nuclear governance increases, so does the level of tension between the European Council and the European Commission. In the current European institutional hierarchy, the Council defines the general political direction and priorities of the EU, and the Commission is in charge of producing actual legislation, fitting within the political framework provided by the Council and subsequently approved by the European Parliament. For several years before the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force in December 2009, the main responsibility for crafting an EU nuclear policy was assigned almost exclusively to the European Commission through two different Departments: Energy and External Relations. Now, however, with the strengthening of the European Council and the establishment of the post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs & Security Policy and of an EU diplomatic staff – the External Action Service – EU nuclear policy has been fragmented and dispersed between the two institutions raising challenges of coordination, duplication and institutional competition.  Above all, the institutional clash resulting from the expanding role of the EU in nuclear governance is something of a paradox.  On the one hand, the EU has begun work on nuclear issues because of the deepening of its regional integration process, and on the other, the very process risks undermining the sustainability of the EU nuclear approach in the long run.

The third negative externality is geo-political. If nuclear governance is to be successful and sustainable, it cannot be merely reactive, responding after the eruption of nuclear crises. Rather, it must address the root causes of proliferation, such as instability, insecurity, prestige or status-seeking aspirations among countries engaged in WMD development and/or acquisition. This means that global nuclear politics should never be disjoined from broader security and development policies.  For this reason, in order to maintain a critical linkage between its nuclear policies and its broader security and defense approach, the EU released in 2003 the EU WMD Strategy in conjunction with its first European Security Strategy. The proliferation of weapons of mass destruction was defined as an international security threat as grave as terrorism, organized crime, state failure, energy insecurity and climate change.

Although the impelling necessity for the EU to adopt a strategic-thinking culture is frequently discussed and acknowledged by EU officials and diplomats of EU member-states, very little has been done in this regard so far, and the negotiations with Iran have exposed, even more seriously, EU naiveté and incongruence in articulating its strategic long-term vision on world politics.  Sauer, for instance, has remarked that the assumption by the EU of a leadership role in the Iranian crisis was initiated with too much confidence, without proper preparations and without a realistic estimate of the potential political backlash for the EU deriving from the failure of such negotiations. 

In this regard, the future engagement of the European Union in emerging proliferation crises could produce serious political backlashes for the EU unless such an engagement is prepared and takes place in the broader context of a consistent and forward-looking defense and security policy. Engaging with nuclear crises on ad-hoc basis will only contribute to bring attention to the actual lack of strategic thinking of the EU as whole.

Finally, there is what I call reputational and identity externalities. As the EU shifts toward a more coercive approach to halt nuclear proliferation – as in the case of Iran – the original view of an EU based on multilateralism, dialogue, economic cooperation and soft power is called into question. The aura of neutrality, impartiality and goodness that the EU has used to distinguish itself from the United States in foreign policy also is fading away, with important repercussions. A deeper engagement in global nuclear politics and great-power politics in general, inevitably entails bold actions, taking sides and sometimes opting for unpopular decisions, such as using military means to prevent rogue countries from acquiring weapons of mass destruction. This may clash with the fundamental idea of the EU as it has been cast for the past two decades. Can we – as Europeans – bear the prospect of an EU more willing to act boldly and strategically in the pursuit of a specific global nuclear order?

EU aspirations in the era of global nuclear leadership

These externalities exist and must be managed, if not completely resolved, through a skillful process that involves transparency, political boldness, strategic insight and, above all, leadership among European Union members and institutions.

At the political level, it is important for the Big Three countries to recognize that their power on the global stage is only as strong as the level of support they get from the other EU member-states. This means that nuclear politics within the EU cannot become an issue managed by a mini-club of countries. In order to avoid marginalization, the EU must be able to engage all members in nuclear discussions. One possible route to that end would be to establish a subcommittee within the European Council exclusively mandated to handle and facilitate nuclear discussions. This could prove tricky, at least in the beginning, because a number of countries within the EU would probably seize the opportunity to raise the controversial issue of nuclear disarmament in Europe that a few members, including the Big Three, oppose. If nuclear policy is to become a true European priority, discussions around nuclear disarmament will have to be undertaken sooner or later. The willingness of the European Council to tackle these sensitive issues in a democratic and participatory way, instead of simply avoiding them altogether, will in time pay off in terms of acquired strength, credibility and legitimacy.

Institutionally, it is essential that the EU can rely on a clear organizational structure mandated to design, manage and lead nuclear efforts in a consistent fashion. The inter-institutional difficulties in coordinating nuclear policies are affecting the ability of the EU to implement nuclear policies and must be resolved. In this regard, the recent establishment, upon French recommendation, of the position of Principal Adviser and Special Envoy for Non-Proliferation and Disarmament within the EU is welcome.  The Envoy will advocate EU nuclear policies in front of the international community, and will also play a key role in facilitating information sharing and policy design among the different institutions of the EU. The Special Envoy’s office must be given adequate resources (both technical and human) and some discretionary autonomy to avoid being completely hijacked by factional politics and member-states’ single-minded interests.

Geostrategically, it is imperative that the EU become much better at using international forums as well as at cooperating with regional and inter-regional institutions. Here, too, the EU can also aspire to be an institution-builder. Given the cosmopolitan nature of the EU’s foreign policy establishment and its global economic outreach, the EU should maintain an informal discussion network with key powers in the regions where it is establishing its Centres of Excellence. This would provide an outstanding opportunity for the EU to develop ties with key regional players and to acquire a more comprehensive and global perspective on nuclear governance.

A more effective EU engagement with the world would also build credibility at home. In the eyes of its European constituency, a globally active, strategically engaged EU could be more “justified” in taking bold actions beyond Europe. However, global engagement must be explained to all Europeans more effectively than the EU has done so far. Europeans can understand that the fight against nuclear proliferation is a vital one that goes to the core of both security and economic interests of the Union, as long as European institutions are willing to work transparently and coherently.

These policy strategies will not be implemented easily, and they will require committed leadership. Stepping into the global arena of nuclear politics demands courage and forward-looking vision. The procrastination that the EU has displayed in nuclear politics has not paid off. Risks have increased, as have insecurity and instability. Since 2003, the EU has demonstrated its willingness to engage more proactively with nuclear governance and to take some risks. Sustaining that change of heart demands further assumption of responsibilities as consequences unfold and externalities emerge. If the EU is able to face head-on the costs of global nuclear engagement, it will step into the 21st century as a true global power.


Francesca Giovannini is a Post-Doc MacArthur Nuclear Fellow jointly appointed to CISAC and the Europe Center. She earned a PhD from the University of Oxford and has two Master Degrees from the University of California Berkeley. From 2000 to 2005, Francesca served the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the United Nations in Gaza, Turkey and Lebanon.