The social democratic bomb

SPD lead candidate for the European elections won’t rule out EU procuring nuclear weapons. Paris offers to extend the French nuclear umbrella, while media float the idea of a German bomb.

BERLIN/PARIS (own report) - The SPD’s lead candidate for the upcoming European elections, Katarina Barley, is not ruling out the procurement of nuclear weapons by the EU. “On the path to a European army,” says Barley on Tuesday, an EU nuclear bomb “could also be a on the table.” Other politicians have in the past advanced this view, most notably former German Foreign Minister Josef Fischer (Alliance 90/The Greens), who has called for the EU to have “its own nuclear deterrent”. French President Emmanuel Macron is holding out the prospect of extending the French nuclear umbrella over the EU, while German media voices have again discussed the taboo-breaking idea of Germany’s own bomb. The call for Germany, or alternatively the EU, to arm itself with nuclear weapons is nothing new. Nuclear options were openly discussed in the wake of Donald Trump’s election victory in the 2016, and then again during his 2020 US election campaign. The reason given at both conjunctures was the perceived need for a replacement deterrent in the event of the US removing its nuclear shield across Europe. The latest demands are accompanied by a clamour for an unprecedented conventional arms build-up, with hawks citing a sum of 300 billion euros for new weaponry.

“A European nuclear shield”

The call for Germany to acquire nuclear weapons is, fundamentally, not new. Indeed, the idea was first put forward by the Adenauer government back in the 1950s, but Bonn failed to get its way scientifically and diplomatically ( reported [1]). Most recently, there have been plenty of voices pushing for Berlin either to have access to a “European” bomb or actually command its own nuclear weapons. The demands emerged in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as US President in early November 2016. German policy wonks said at the time that Berlin would now “have to consider developing a European nuclear shield based on French and British capabilities.”[2] Some politicians have also floated the idea. Roderich Kiesewetter, then defence policy spokesperson for the CDU/CSU parliamentary group in the Bundestag, urged the establishment of a European “nuclear umbrella” to be funded from a dedicated EU military budget.[3] Some went a step further, calling for a focus on obtaining a German nuclear bomb. As a major editorial in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung stated, Germany should finally think the “unthinkable” since “the question of Germany’s own nuclear deterrent capability” had arisen, and “the French and British arsenals” were “too weak”.[4]

“Our own nuclear deterrent”

The nuclear debate flared up again in early 2020 in the context of the upcoming US election campaign and the real possibility of a second Donald Trump administration. At the time, the deputy chair of the CDU/CSU parliamentary group, Johann Wadephul, who was responsible for foreign and military policy, advocated nuclear cooperation with France. Berlin should, he argued, participate in “nuclear deterrence” by developing “its own capabilities and means”, while Paris should place its force de frappe “under a joint EU or NATO command”.[5] Paris indignantly rejected such a move. The next attempt began about two months ago, again with the this year’s US presidential election in mind. After a number of media forays intended to make nuclear armament of the EU or Germany at least a talking point, former Federal Foreign Minister Joseph Fischer (Alliance 90/The Greens), was sought out to reassert his position. “That is indeed the most difficult question,” he opined.[6] For Germany at a purely national level, Fischer answered the question with a “no”, but for the European level with a direct “yes”. The Green politician stated categorically, “The EU needs its own nuclear deterrent.”

France’s force de frappe

Addressing this rekindled debate, President Emmanuel Macron very recently presented the official French stance. In a speech delivered at a military academy in Stockholm at the end of January, Macron declared, “Today, our vital interests are largely European, which gives us a special responsibility when it comes to nuclear deterrence.”[7] Indeed, Macron has a long record of offering, essentially, to extend the French nuclear umbrella to the whole EU. The condition is a strict assurance that France will retain full sovereignty over all force de frappe operations and missions. According to this model, Germany and other countries would, in certain circumstances, be able to participate in nuclear manoeuvres, much as it now participates in “nuclear-sharing” exercises, which practice the deployment of US nuclear warheads.[8] France does not, however, want Germany and other allies to have a direct say. Poland’s new prime minister Donald Tusk took up the French plan in Berlin on Monday, declaring it to be a “very important” option.[9] But the German government is rejecting the plan. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Marine Le Pen recently announced that she would discontinue such a model if she won the election.[10] The uncertain future weakens Macron’s position.

The ultimate taboo

New ideas for a nuclear shield were floated last Tuesday. An editorial in the influential Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung argued that “the Europeans”, too, should in future “have nuclear forces at their disposal”. In view of Macron’s refusal to allow Berlin to have a direct say on deployment and Le Pen’s announcement that she would not share a French nuclear umbrella with the EU, the article went on to say that “the ultimate German security policy taboo may now have to fall,” i.e. reversing the longstanding position that “Germany should do without its own nuclear weapons”.[11] Katarina Barley, the SPD’s lead candidate for the upcoming European elections, called for greater nuclear deterrence. Asked about a possible nuclear arms build-up by the EU, Barley confirmed, “On the way to a European army, this could also be a on the table.” She shares the analysis of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, who argues that, while it is supposedly clearly in the interests of the United States to continue to provide the EU with significant nuclear deterrents,[12] statements voiced by Donald Trump must lead Europe to assume “this can no longer be relied upon”.

Special debt facility for arms production

The calls for EU nuclear weapons or even a specifically German nuclear capability are accompanied by appeals for an unprecedented build-up of conventional arms. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has repeatedly affirmed his intention to invest two per cent of GDP in the military budget on a permanent basis. As soon as the special fund ­– in effect a special debt – of 100 billion euros for the Bundeswehr has been spent, observers expect another 56 billion euros a year will be demanded to reach the military spending target.[13] On Monday, Anton Hofreiter, a particularly hawkish Green member of the Bundestag, called for a further 100 billion euro package to arm both Germany and Ukraine.[14] Yesterday, Tuesday, CDU politician and military policy expert Roderich Kiesewetter added that it was “absolutely clear that we need 300 billion rather than 100 billion to make the Bundeswehr fit for war.” And SPD politician Andreas Schwarz, seeking to avoid funding constraints, has called for “all defence costs to be removed from the government’s debt brake”, a constitutional provision to ensure balanced budgets. Debts were, he said, justified in order to “invest in civil defence and disaster control, for example”. Germany needed “much more cyber defence, bunkers, mobile operating rooms and field hospital facilities.”[15] Moreover, the defence industry should, he said, enjoy long-term guaranteed purchase contracts.


[1] See also: Griff nach der Bombe.

[2] See also: Make Europe great again.

[3] See also: Der Schock als Chance.

[4] Berthold Kohler: Das Undenkbare. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 28.11.2016.

[5] Hans Monath: "Wir sollten uns an nuklearer Abschreckung beteiligen". 02.02.2020. See also: Griff nach der Bombe (III).

[6] Joschka Fischer fordert neue Atomwaffen in Europa. 03.12.2023. See also: Atomwaffen für Europa.

[7] Stefan Brändle: Macron will den Atomschirm über Europa aufspannen. 07.02.2024.

[8] See also: Das Atomkriegsszenario.

[9] Pressekonferenz von Bundeskanzler Scholz und dem Ministerpräsidenten der Republik Polen, Tusk am 12. Februar 2024 in Berlin.

[10] Sylvie Kauffmann: « Dans cette nouvelle ère où l’affrontement a remplacé la cooperation, la question de la dissuasion nucléaire reprend tout son sens ». 07.02.2024.

[11]Berthold Kohler: Trump und das letzte Tabu. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung 13.02.2024.

[12] Katarina Barley: EU-Atombombe könnte Thema werden. 13.02.2024.

[13] Georg Ismar: Noch mehr Geld für die Verteidigung. Süddeutsche Zeitung 13.02.2024.

[14] Daniel Lücking: 100-Milliarden-Paket für die Bundeswehr: Kriegslogik pur. 12.02.2024.

[15] Georg Ismar: Noch mehr Geld für die Verteidigung. Süddeutsche Zeitung 13.02.2024.