Politics /

French President Emmanuel Macron is making a play to secure France’s place as the leading EU state in defense policy. His recent remarks about leveraging France’s nuclear weapons as a deterrence were not met with shared enthusiasm, however.

France: The EU’s Only Nuclear Power

With the UK now an EU outsider, only Germany stands in France’s way of filling the EU leadership vacuum. Critically, France is now the bloc’s only state capable of manufacturing its own nuclear weapons, although Germany, Belgium, Italy, and the Netherlands are all NATO nuclear-sharing members. 

Combined with rising threats in the Middle East and Asia, Macron views present circumstances as France’s moment to step up. Invoking the notion of nuclear weapons may have been a step too far, though. Key to Macron’s strategy is a EU defense strategy bolstered by France’s nuclear armament. 

Macron’s Nuclear Pitch

He first shared the idea at a military officer graduation Feb. 7 in Paris. There he announced an increase in defense spending and committed 600 more troops to the fight against foreign extremists, as Thomas Adamson reported for AP.

More importantly, Macron advocated an expanded role for France’s nuclear weapons as Europe’s protector, a deterrent in the wake of a global nuclear reshuffling. China is building up its nuclear stockpile, the US has cancelled nuclear deals with Russia and Iran, North Korea continues to make progress toward a nuclear warhead, and both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are turning to nuclear energy, the first step toward weaponizing it. 

Macron: the EU Must Stand Up for Itself

Historically, under such circumstances, European states would have coordinated their policy through NATO, typically under US leadership. However, President Donald Trump has repeatedly made clear his priority is America first and he never missed a chance to express his disdain for NATO. Furthermore, Trump has a demonstrated ability to turn on his allies: economically, he started trade disputes with Canada, France, and Mexico; and militarily, he abandoned the Kurds in Syria and recently suggested US allies should treat American troops as mercenaries that they should pay to host.

“Europeans must collectively realize that, in the absence of a legal framework, they could quickly find themselves exposed to the resumption of a conventional, even nuclear, arms race on their soil,” Macron said. He warned the EU must stand up for itself and take control of its own future now that Washington has isolated itself. 

Europe Needs Independence from US Leadership

At the annual Munich Security Conference held Feb. 14 to 16, Macron shared his ideas with his counterparts from across the globe, Deutsche Welle reported.

“We cannot always go through the United States, no, we have to think in a European way as well,” he declared. Macron has become “convinced that we need a much stronger Europe in defense.”

Critics suggested Macron is willing to abandon NATO, but he clarified there is no intention to do so. Instead, he views a European defense network as a complement to NATO rather than a replacement of it.

“I’ve said it before: Common security in Europe has two pillars, and one of these pillars is NATO and the other one is a Europe of defense,” Macron said.

For reasons of sovereignty and “ability to act” autonomously, a defense framework should be led by France and include its nuclear force. However, Macron encouraged joint EU exercise with NATO forces. 

“We need some freedom of action in Europe,” Macron explained. “We need to develop our own strategy. We don’t have the same geographic conditions (as the US), not the same ideas about social equilibrium, about social welfare. There are ideals we have to defend. Mediterranean policy: that is a European thing, not a trans-Atlantic thing, and the same goes for Russia — we need a European policy, not just a trans-Atlantic policy.”

No Support From France’s NATO ‘Friends’

The reaction to Macron’s suggestion of a French-led EU nuclear deterrent was met with resistance from NATO, German, and Polish leadership. 

“We have to remember that we have a European nuclear deterrent today—28 allies deliver that every day and it’s not only a promise, but it’s something that has been there for decades,” said NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

Similarly, while German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer entertained the idea, she emphasized that reinforcing European security is best achieved through NATO.

Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz had the harshest feedback for Macron’s idea. He both criticized Macron for mentioning the word ‘nuclear’ and suggested it would not work in any case. 

“We can say that he broke [the] nuclear taboo, to a certain extent, which is a serious thing for societies to remind that there is such a thing like nuclear threats.” Czaputowicz said in an exclusive Washington Examiner interview. “Everybody knows there are nuclear weapons, but we do not talk about that. You start to talk; you want to show something.”

Czaputowicz also said only the US nuclear arsenal is large enough to pose a significant deterrence to Russians, dismissing Macron’s plan.

Although the reaction from his European counterparts has not been desirable, it is possible that Macron will gain more support if the US continues to withdraw from world leadership. Furthermore, if Washington continues to bully NATO members for not spending what Trump feels is fair, or demanding more money to host American troops, the situation may deteriorate enough to ultimately prove Macron right.

The EU would be justified to look to itself for leadership as new threats emerge in the east, especially if Trump wins reelection.