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Macron raises defence stakes by suggesting nuclear arms

Macron raises defence stakes by suggesting nuclear arms
Emmanuel Macron President of France talks during a press conference at the European Council Meeting on March 22, 2024 in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo by Pier Marco Tacca/Getty Images)

French President Emmanuel Macron raised the stakes in his call for a credible European defence by adding nuclear weapons to the discussion.

After setting out the need for Europe to come up with a plan to defend itself in a more hostile world during a speech last week, Macron went a step further in an effort to push ahead on talks with other European countries.

“I’m in favour of opening this debate, which needs to include missile defence, long-range missiles and nuclear weapons for those who have them or who have American nuclear weapons on their soil,” Macron said in a question-and-answer session with European students, organised by a group of French regional newspapers and published in their Sunday editions.

Macron said that France’s doctrine is that nuclear weapons can be used when the nation’s vital interests are threatened. He added that he’d already said that those interests include a “European dimension,” without offering further detail.

Macron also pressed his point via Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné ahead of a meeting of the Weimar Triangle of French, German and Polish ministers near Paris on Monday. 

“We need to take out a second life insurance policy alongside NATO,” Séjourné said in an interview published on Sunday in Germany’s Welt newspaper. The US should remain a close ally, but Europe must be able to develop its own “sovereignty and strategic autonomy,” he added, according to the paper. 

Macron has regularly used strong language to try to drive forward the debate on international issues and institutions. He called the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation “brain dead” in 2019 before saying last year that Russian President Vladimir Putin had shocked it back to life with his invasion of Ukraine. In his speech on Thursday, Macron warned that Europe is in mortal danger and could die if its members don’t make the right choices now.

Nuclear debate

This also isn’t the first time that Macron has called for a discussion with other European countries on nuclear defence.

In a February 2020 speech at France’s War College, the French leader called for Europe to create a credible, autonomous defence and raised the idea of a European nuclear deterrent. 

“I would like to see the development of a strategic dialogue with our European partners, who are ready and willing, on the role of France’s nuclear deterrent in our collective security,” he said. “France’s vital interests now have a European dimension.”

Read more: Macron Seeks to Allay Concerns Over Nuclear Arms Policy 

His comment now, that he’s still trying to open the debate, shows the lack of progress from that prior effort. 

Still, the context is sharply different, most dramatically because of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. That’s already changed the equation for some European countries — for example, leading Finland and Sweden to join NATO.  

According to Macron, Europe needs to go further than just relying on NATO, in particular because Europe won’t be a geopolitical priority for the US for years to come. 

“We have one form of protection, NATO,” Macron said in the interview on Sunday. “As I said at the Sorbonne, we now need to go further and build a credible European defence.”

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