France seeks lead post-Brexit role in EU nuclear strategy

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the Ecole Militaire Friday, Feb. 7, 2020 in Paris. French President Emmanuel Macron, who leads the European Union's only post-Brexit nuclear power, on Friday advocated a more coordinated EU defense strategy in which France, and its arsenal, would hold a central role. (AP Photo/Francois Mori, Pool)
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French President Emmanuel Macron on Friday advocated a more coordinated European Union defense strategy in which France, the bloc’s only post-Brexit nuclear power, and its arsenal would occupy a central role.

Macron outlined France’s nuclear strategy during a speech to graduating military officers one week after Britain, Europe’s only other nuclear-armed state, officially exited the EU.

The French leader said his country sees its nuclear weapons as a deterrent against attacks from belligerent foes, though acknowledged that France’s nuclear might is diminished after its military scaled down its arsenal to under 300 nuclear weapons.

But Macron’s keynote speech aimed to project strength. The president said he refused to sign any treaties at this time to further reduce the size of France’s nuclear arsenal and announced an increase in military spending.

Macron also positioned himself as the driving force for a united EU, using France’s military clout to make his point. He touted the French military’s role in spots such as Africa’s Sahel, where he just pledged an additional 600 troops to fight extremists.The central idea in the speech, however, was that of a boosted Europe-wide role for the French nuclear arsenal in a more coordinated European defense policy.

Macron said it the strategy would prevent Europe “confining itself to a spectator role” in an environment dominated by Russia, the United States and China.

“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 warned.

His remarks come at a time when NATO allies, who would ordinarily look to the United States for help in a nuclear standoff, worry about Washington’s retreat from the multilateral stage. This could create new tensions within NATO, where Macron ruffled feathers last year by saying the lack of U.S. leadership is causing the “brain death” of the military alliance.

Last year, the U.S. and then Russia pulled out of the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty — dating from the era of the Soviet Union — and each blamed the other for its failure. Evoking the tearing-up of the INF treaty, Macron said he wanted the Europeans to propose their own “international arms control agenda together.”

Friday’s speech was part of Macron’s long-running push for a stronger European defense, as U.S. President Donald Trump has pulled away from European allies and admonished them to pay more for their own protection.

Macron explained his vision as “an offer of dialogue” and “service” to Europeans to assert their autonomy “in defense and arms control.”

An EU spokeswoman said that member states remain “attached to the pursuit of nuclear disarmament” as outlined in the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

“Non-proliferation, disarmament and the peaceful use of nuclear energy, the three pillars of (the treaty), are essential for peace, security and international stability,” said Virginie Battu-Henriksson, spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy for the EU, said in an email.

NATO, which includes two other nuclear powers — the U.S. and Britain — didn’t immediately comment.