The EU, French nuclear deterrence and the definition of common vital interests
By Timothée Albessard
As Brexit talks still seem to flounder, the European Union (EU) will be left with many questions that require answering to, including the military nuclear issue. Indeed, France will remain the only nuclear-weapon state within the EU. Many have wondered whether this change would dramatically impact the credibility of the EU amid a growingly hostile world, where nuclear proliferation appears to be on the rise, and arms control treaties lack political impact and true military limitation.
This question was notably raised by French President Emmanuel Macron, when delivering a speech at the École de Guerre, in February 2020. Advocating the “construction of a shared strategic culture” between member states, Mr. Macron called for a “strategic dialogue to develop with our European partners, which are ready for it, on the role played by France’s nuclear deterrence in our collective security.” Such statements did not go unnoticed, as some member states are traditionally hostile to nuclear weapons and continue to benefit from NATO’s extended nuclear deterrence. Mr. Macron’s speech has thus rekindled the flames of a lasting debate in European construction, especially about the issue of a common security policy, and France’s particular input in that matter.
Before considering the possibility of a European-wide French nuclear deterrence, it is important to briefly recapitulate the doctrinal evolution it has undergone since the 1970s. The 1972 White Paper on national defense put heavy emphasis on the “exclusively national and essentially defensive nature of deterrence” regarding the preservation of France’s “vital interests”, without any reference to the European Community. France’s nuclear weapon was (and still is) understood as a token of sovereignty and strategic autonomy.
However, the very definition of France’s vital interests quickly became closely related to the integrity of the European territory. In 1976, French general Méry formulated the concept of “extended sanctuarization”, showing that the European factor was decisive in the elaboration of French defense strategy. This concept proved to be fruitful and paved the way for the 2008 White Paper on defense and national security: “The very existence of French nuclear deterrence also contributes to European security.” The history of French nuclear deterrence is also the history of the idea that its fate and that of Europe intertwine in security matters.
The new geostrategic context the EU finds itself embedded into (faced with the Russian threat for instance) has led Mr. Macron to clearly declare that France’s vital interests have a European dimension. His suggestion that member states could engage talks with France about the part French nuclear deterrence could play in collective security reinforces France’s bid to build a proper European security policy (be it nuclear or conventional). Nevertheless, such discussions would of course not be tantamount to a co-decision process, insofar as French deterrence is a key component of its strategic clout.
This call for more cooperation is in line with the deterioration of the global strategic context. Firstly, since the election of Donald Trump in 2016, NATO-affiliated European states have come to question the reliability of American extended nuclear deterrence in a more pressing way (such doubts had already been raised under the Obama Administration). Trump’s fickleness and desire to pare down expenses for other countries’ security has bred various concerns about the efficiency of Washington’s protection (as exemplified by the recent decision to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany). The American posture is therefore a substantial source of uncertainty for Europe, in the midst of an unstable strategic situation.
Secondly, the EU faces vivid threats at its very borders. As French international relations expert Thérèse Delpech wrote, we currently live in the “era of strategic piracy”, characterized by “the absence of rules and deception”. Russia is one of these new pirates. Its repeated violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty has led to its dismantlement by the United States in August 2019, thus leaving the world’s two biggest nuclear-weapon states with fewer arms limitation than during the end of the Cold War. More uncertainty is to come with the expiration of the New Start Treaty in February 2021. Moreover, Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 showed little respect for international law and triggered a new conflict even closer to the EU, raising yet another source of disquiet for the Baltic States.
More light was shed on the extension of the French nuclear deterrent because of this global context. Nevertheless, such a possibility was met with concern regarding its relationship with NATO, in the wake of several historical rows between this organization and France. This is the reason why Mr. Macron has specified that, although the EU needs to shape its own security policy, increased commitment on the part of France would not be incompatible with NATO’s protection. Indeed, the 1974 Ottawa Declaration on Atlantic Relations made it clear that “the European members (…) provide three-quarters of the conventional strength of the Alliance in Europe, and two of whom (France and the UK) possess nuclear forces capable of playing a deterrent role of their own contributions to the overall strengthening of the deterrence of the Alliance.” This principle was reaffirmed in the Alliance’s 1991 strategic concept, setting this mutual frame. If French nuclear deterrence were to add to that of NATO in Europe, it would therefore be much more of cooperation than a competitive juxtaposition. This is probably one of the domains Mr. Macron proposes to explore more in-depth with the interested European Allies.
However, some internal hurdles remain. For instance, the fact that the Republic of Ireland, Austria and Malta are signatories to the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW) considerably checks any possibility of building European consensus on this security issue. All three countries have ratified the TPNW (as recently as August 2020 for Ireland, and September for Malta), which officially forbids them to benefit from nuclear weapons and directly pits them against France. Hence Mr. Macron’s proposal to have talks with the particular countries that would be willing to discuss a European role for the French nuclear deterrent.
That France will be the EU’s sole nuclear-weapon state, and the question of extending its deterrence to its European allies are not the most important issues to raise. What matters is the renewed, though often thwarted, attempt to bring the EU to define its common and vital interests. Raising the question of a European-wide nuclear deterrent could help reinforce the political bond between member states thanks to the establishment of a solid, common defense policy.
Will the EU proved to be nothing but a common market, or will it turn into a true political entity with the ability to defend itself in a growingly threatening world? In May 1994, former French President François Mitterrand sketched an answer which desperately needs rethinking today: “Europe must have clear notions in terms of common vital interest, it must go far enough in its political conscience to feel that one’s territorial integrity is bound to another’s territorial integrity, huge efforts and progress must be accomplished by those who wish to pursue the construction of Europe, and France will accept the debate. That day is yet to come.”
Delpech, T. (2013). La Dissuasion nucléaire au XXIe siècle. Comment aborder une nouvelle ère de piraterie stratégique. Odile Jacob.
Mongin, D. (2018). Dissuasion et simulation. De la fin des essais nucléaires français au programme Simulation. Odile Jacob.
Jurgensen, C. (2019). L’Europe, la France et la dissuasion nucléaire. Revue Défense Nationale, 821(6), 56-68.
Livre blanc sur la défense de 1972. Available from :
Livre blanc sur la défense et la sécurité nationale de 2008. Available from :
Intervention de M. François Mitterrand, Président de la République, sur la politique de défense de la France et la dissuasion nucléaire, Paris, le 5 mai 1994. Available from : https://www.elysee.fr/francois-mitterrand/1994/05/05/intervention-de-m-francois-mitterrand-president-de-la-republique-sur-la-politique-de-defense-de-la-france-et-la-dissuasion-nucleaire-paris-le-5-mai-1994
Discours du Président Emmanuel Macron sur la stratégie de défense et de dissuasion devant les stagiaires de la 27e promotion de l’École de Guerre, 7 février 2020. Available from : https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2020/02/07/speech-of-the-president-of-the-republic-on-the-defense-and-deterrence-strategy.en
Declaration on Atlantic Relations issued by the North Atlantic Council, 19 June 1974. Available from: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_26901.htm
“U.S. to withdraw 12,000 troops from Germany in ‘strategic move’”, BBC News, 29 July 2020. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-53589245
 https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2020/02/07/speech-of-the-president-of-the-republic-on-the-defense-and-deterrence-strategy.en  http://www.livreblancdefenseetsecurite.gouv.fr/pdf/le-livre-blanc-sur-la-defense-1972.pdf  http://archives.livreblancdefenseetsecurite.gouv.fr/2008/IMG/pdf/livre_blanc_tome1_partie1.pdf  https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-53589245  Thérèse Delpech, La Dissuasion nucléaire au XXIe siècle, Odile Jacob, 2013  https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_26901.htm?  https://www.elysee.fr/francois-mitterrand/1994/05/05/intervention-de-m-francois-mitterrand-president-de-la-republique-sur-la-politique-de-defense-de-la-france-et-la-dissuasion-nucleaire-paris-le-5-mai-1994