THE THREE-WAY SPLIT ON NUCLEAR WEAPONS: The EU is a microcosm of the nuclear weapons regime. As such, it presaged its failure

by Leo Hoffmann-Axthelm (Voltaire Promotion)


The international community failed to reach agreement on the state of play of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty (NPT) at its five-yearly review conference that concluded at the end of May. Four weeks of negotiations yielded no consensus outcome.

Did the EU’s role at the conference live up to its ambitions? The Union is often regarded as a “civilian power”, and should be well positioned to pursue goals such as nonproliferation and disarmament. It is structurally less prone to impose its will than unified nation-states, and less likely to use military force than most of the ‘big powers’ in today’s multipolar world. It therefore enjoys a higher degree of credibility when championing human rights, conflict resolution, and disarmament.

The EEAS has been highly successful at complementing Member States’ diplomatic services. In spite of the requirement of unanimity on foreign policy issues, in multilateral forums such as the United Nations the EU does find agreement on the vast majority of files. Compared to the rest of the world, EU members do share the same values and interests, and where they do not, the file may not be important enough for any single member to withhold their acquiescent consent. But the contentious topics are the ones grabbing the headlines, often making the EU appear as a divided bunch, e.g. on military action, Middle East politics and Russia sanctions.

And nowhere is the EU as divided as on nuclear weapons. In spite of its inherent ease with multilateral negotiations and multi-level bargaining, the EU dramatically failed in its ambition to play a constructive role at the 2015 NPT conference.

The EU and the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

In a classic diplomatic spin, Jacek Bylica, in charge of nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament at the EEAS, essentially says the EU is so divided that he “likes to call it a microcosm of the NPT”. The EU includes two nuclear-armed states among its 22 NATO-members, all of which rely on nuclear weapons for security. Four of them even host nuclear weapons on their territory (Belgium, Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands). Therefore, these states clearly shift the EU’s focus towards initiatives to bolster non-proliferation. Another six EU-states are not members of NATO (Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden) and are, along with Denmark, far more enthusiastic about nuclear disarmament. Consequently, if the EU achieves a common position, this should go a long way of bridging the differences within the global NPT-membership.

As it turns out, this did not happen. While the EU’s statement rightly praised the political agreement reached in April in the talks with Iran, under HR/VP Federica Mogherini’s chairwomanship, the juicy bits lie elsewhere. Much in the way the Greek Government abolished the word ‘Troika’, France barred any use of the word ‘humanitarian’. While it is reassuring to see nuclear-armed states waste their political capital on linguistics, the statement does not limit itself to a tired run-down of wishful thinking, calling on nuclear-armed states to finally implement decades-old agreements and other highly improbable demands, such as the universalisation of the NPT (requiring four nuclear-armed holdouts to disarm unilaterally) or action in the Conference on Disarmament (unable to even adopt a programme of work since 1996!).

No, the EU statement went much further, with a clear diplomatic snub directed at one of its own Member States. Austria had in December of 2014 hosted a conference on the Humanitarian Impact of Nuclear Weapons, in an earnest attempt to strengthen understanding of the implications of international and humanitarian law for nuclear weapons and their effects. This was attended by 158 states, which is far more than the 104 states attending the NPT conference in New York (many of the 191 signatories no longer show up). While the US and UK attended after boycotting previous such efforts, France stayed away. How would the EU statement recall this highly relevant development? It “noted” that there was “a conference” whose name cannot be spoken as it includes the term ‘humanitarian’. But it went further: Federica Mogherini, an avowed nuclear abolitionist, was forced to emphasise that “not all” EU Member States participated. While Austria is singled out as the organizer of the ominous meeting, France as the only Member State boycotting it preferred not to be mentioned.

The Humanitarian Initiative

But why are these humanitarian consequences so contentious? Five years ago, the 2010 NPT conference adopted a consensus outcome document expressing the deep concern shared by all NPT state parties at the “catastrophic humanitarian consequences” any use of nuclear weapons would have. This kicked off a dramatic reframing of the whole nuclear weapons discourse, with the Norwegian, Mexican and Austrian governments holding three conferences on the issue. This snowballed into the Humanitarian Initiative, with an overwhelming majority of countries around the world signing on to its joint statements. Accordingly, humanitarian considerations should be at the heart of any discussions of nuclear weapons. This means nuclear weapons should not be debated as an abstract subject of political science theory, but rather focusing on their effects on the physical world – effects that go far beyond what can be considered acceptable under international humanitarian law.

The initiative therefore calls into question the legitimacy of nuclear weapons, and the legitimacy of a security order based on them. While the NPT obliges nuclear-armed states to disarm, their persistent failure to credibly move towards this goal threatens the credibility of the NPT and the non-proliferation norm it embodies. Attempts to put this genie back into the bottle were doomed to fail; the humanitarian initiative and renewed calls for progress on nuclear disarmament are here to stay. And yet in the EU context, French diplomats managed to suppress any reference to the humanitarian initiative, in the face of seven EU Member States that joined it. These states emphasized that the Foreign Affairs Council conclusion did not receive unanimous endorsement, depriving them of the legal status of a common position.

But why did we have to showcase European division in such an embarrassing manner?

First, it was difficult to avoid. None of the humanitarian initiative states could expect to upload their policy preference to the EU level, given the majority of states relies on nuclear deterrence or NATO extended deterrence. The nuclear-armed are prepared to spend more political capital to avoid an increasing pressure to follow through on their existing disarmament obligations under article VI of the NPT.

Second, Austria had bigger fish to fry. On the same day Federica Mogherini spoke on behalf of 28 EU Member States, the Austrian Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz also delivered a statement. As far as we know this was the largest group of states ever to have agreed on a substantive statement in the history of the United Nations. Austria spoke on behalf of the 159 nations of the Humanitarian Initiative – over 80% of the international community. They certainly did not feel lonely.

Third, the European Parliament failed to play its part in pressuring EU governments towards a common position. For the first time since acquiring foreign policy relevance under Maastricht, it did not adopt a resolution ahead of an NPT conference. HR/VP Mogherini sharply criticized Parliament for this failure, knowing that one lawmaker from her own S&D Group was to blame. Ioan Mircea Pascu, a former Romanian Defense Minister, used his gatekeeper position on security and defence issues within S&D to block the resolution. A majority of his group’s MEPs actually favoured a resolution, which would certainly have endorsed the Humanitarian Initiative.

Finally, it was not really necessary to prevent the EU-statement from rolling back the Humanitarian Initiative, as this was doomed to fail. It is next to impossible to wind back consensus language once as agreed in 2010. With 159 plus another 26 states of the “Humanitarian Consequences Group” (a softer version that does not question nuclear deterrence, including most EU non-nuclear weapon states) hammering on about the humanitarian impact of nuclear weapons, the EU’s statement seemed bizarrely out of touch.

It was nonetheless revealing of the lack of good faith by some that the EU was forced to speak of the “severe” consequences of nuclear detonations: according to this European Union statement, a few hundred thousand dead people (plus the risk of retaliation and escalation) are not a “catastrophe”. It is a pity the EU had to stand this squarely on the wrong side of history.

Beyond the NPT

And yet the microcosm held true: like the EU, the NPT failed to reach consensus. Ultimately, the US, UK and Canada blocked the conference because of disagreements on a WMD-free zone in the Middle East. A classic situation of mutual blame: Israel is not a party to the NPT, so Arab states can hardly expect it to be bound by NPT-resolutions. But holding talks on such a zone was one of the conditions for the NPT’s indefinite extension in 1995, and was reiterated by consensus in 2010, so Egypt had a point.

The nuclear-armed states have at this review conference lost what remained of the credibility of their disarmament commitments. But the NPT was never a good disarmament forum to begin with – it only includes five of the nine nuclear-armed states, and it operates by consensus, meaning that a handful of countries can block any progress or delay its implementation indefinitely.

The nuclear weapon-free states share an interest in a strong non-proliferation norm, and therefore have no leverage: they are hostage to their good intentions. And yet they too would suffer the global consequences of nuclear exchanges, imposed on them unilaterally by a handful of states who are still convinced that they, unlike everybody else, need nuclear weapons to guarantee their security.

Thus, this conference was not a failure. It drove home the message that nuclear-armed states are not engaging with the concerns of the overwhelming majority of states. As the outgoing UN Commissioner for Disarmament urged repeatedly, “you cannot toss 80 percent of the membership of this organisation into the water”.

By the end of the conference, the lack of good faith by the nuclear-armed has pushed a full 107 states to formally endorse the Humanitarian Pledge, issued by Austria in December 2014. These states have thereby committed themselves “to fill the legal gap for the prohibition and elimination of nuclear weapons”.

107 states is more than a critical mass to start negotiations on a treaty banning nuclear weapons. These could be mandated as early as the 70th anniversary of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 2015, in an ad hoc process or via majority vote at later UN General Assemblies – with or without the European Union.

This is the real outcome of the 2015 NPT Review Conference.


Leo Hoffmann-Axthelm (Voltaire Promotion) has followed nonproliferation and disarmament diplomacy since 2010. After a stint as disarmament envoy for the Republic of Nauru, he co-founded the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN) in Germany. Today he is in Brussels for ICAN and the European Commission.



2 thoughts on “THE THREE-WAY SPLIT ON NUCLEAR WEAPONS: The EU is a microcosm of the nuclear weapons regime. As such, it presaged its failure

  1. Gunnar Westberg

    At a meeting of IPPNW members with mr Bylica and his committee for disarmament in the EEAS a few months ago, we got the impression that the committee members certainly would like to support the Austrian pledge but foresaw no chance of doing so. We from IPPNW said that we understood that France would block any hint of support for nuclear disarmament but got the response that the objections today do come not only from France. We were not told which other countries objected. Since then USA has sent around to Nato countries instructions not to vote for anything that could lead to a ban (information leaked from the Norwegian Foreign Office), an order that could have an effect on the EU position too.
    I think we should take the strong reaction from the USA as an indication that the P5 take the humanitarian aspect as a serious threat for the nuke-lovers. Thusm the NPTRev was a success and hopefully the beginning of a process leading to t ban, and finally abolition, of all nukes.
    Gunnar Westberg
    IPPNW Sweden

  2. Pingback: European Parliament to EU Governments: ‘Ban nukes in 2017!’ |

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