Leo Hoffmann-Axthelm, 29 October 2016
Brussels/Strasbourg. European Union’s legislature takes clear stance on upcoming negotiations on international treaty to prohibit nuclear weapons: the EU’s Member States should “support the convening” and “participate constructively” to its negotiation.
Even as the EU expands its foreign policy machinery and acquires new powers to represent its Member States at the United Nations, it has been oddly silent on one of the most exciting topics at this year’s UN General Assembly meetings.
Its silence on nuclear disarmament and the humanitarian-led push to ban nuclear weapons, is even more striking if one considers the EU’s status as “civilian super-power” and the world’s largest provider of humanitarian assistance.
So what is its stance on the last weapons of mass destruction not yet subject to a universal treaty prohibition? In two words, embarrassingly reactionary. On the occasion of the 2015 NPT Review Conference, when 185 countries joined statements entitled “Humanitarian Initiative” or “Humanitarian Consequences Group”, the EU’s representative was unable even to utter the word “humanitarian”, positioning the EU on the outer fringe of the nuclear discourse.
Nuke watchers will not be surprised to hear that a veto is to blame for this diplomatic blunder. The EU’s Foreign Affairs Council is the Council formation composed of foreign affairs ministers, which formulates EU foreign policy – if they can reach unanimity. France’s reticence in particular left the EU with only one option to show that it cares about nuclear disarmament: ensuring highest-level attendance and sending Federica Mogherini, the EU’s “Foreign Minister” and Chair of the Foreign Affairs Council, to deliver the EU statement in person. Ms Mogherini is known to be a longstanding supporter of nuclear disarmament.
With the Council and by extension the European Commission’s foreign affairs apparatus deadlocked, attention turned to the European Parliament. Freed from formal obligations in foreign policy matters, the European Parliament – like most national parliaments – finds it easier to ‘do the right thing’ and put moral considerations above so-called ‘realist’ constraints, e.g. the claim that NATO states cannot be leaders on disarmament matters, having to move at the speed of the slowest members.
Alas, after progressive resolutions reinforcing the global calls for complete nuclear disarmament in years past, the 2014-19 legislature had so far remained silent on the matter. Leading up to the 2015 debacle, the parliament declined to pass a resolution to call for a progressive EU position, in spite of efforts to the contrary. Ms Mogherini voiced her dismay in the next plenary session.
As the Humanitarian Initiative unfolded into a movement to negotiate a treaty prohibition of nuclear weapons, parliamentarians took notice, however. Unlike the majority of the EU’s governments, who appear to prioritise NATO cohesion over their moral convictions, the European Parliament took a clear stance last Thursday. With impeccable timing, on the same day as the start of voting in the United Nations General Assembly’s First Committee tasked with disarmament matters, the EU’s Parliament:
- “Welcomes the recommendation to the UN General Assembly … to convene a conference in 2017 … to negotiate a legally binding instrument to prohibit nuclear weapons”
- “Invites the EU Member States to support the convening of such a conference in 2017 and to participate constructively in its proceedings”
- “Invites VP/HR Federica Mogherini and the European External Action Service to contribute constructively to the proceedings of the 2017 negotiating conference”
In a particularly encouraging development, almost all of the EU’s centre-right and conservative parties also voted in favour of this language. While their governments at home are almost the only countries globally to oppose a Ban Treaty, except for the nuclear-armed themselves, the people’s representatives took a view that much closer mirrors what surveys have been showing for a long time: we reject nuclear weapons, and will not want to entrust our “security” to a deterrence gamble that has failed far too often to guarantee 100% reliability. Even while condemning Russia’s nuclear sabre-rattling, the resolution sends a clear signal of de-escalation. No nuclear warfare in Europe, please.
Nobody said banning nuclear weapons was easy: otherwise, it would have happened decades ago. Banning nuclear weapons takes courage, or, as President Obama would say, it takes a “moral revolution”. Let’s ban the worst weapons of all under international law, and help his successors to overcome obstacles in taking more decisive steps to reduce investment, posture and numbers.
Nuclear disarmament is a process, after all, not a black-and-white dichotomy. A ban helps.
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 Transparency International.