Vive l'entente cordiale?

Abolition 2000 brought together campaigners and analysts from both sides of the Channel this weekend at a seminar to discuss the implications of the new UK – France Defence and Security Co-operation Treaty.  The Treaty commits the two nations to co-operation over defence and security issues for the next 50 years, with a separate agreement to develop joint facilities for nuclear weapons physics research.

Views about the Treaty and its likely consequences differed, with some participants arguing that it represented a further step in the erosion of the UK's nuclear weapons capabilities following measures to reduce the role of nuclear weapons which were outlined in the Strategic Defence and Security Review, and others taking the less optimistic view that, by binding the UK's warhead research programme to France's, the Treaty will accelerate research on a new UK warhead design and water down the UK's support for a world without nuclear weapons which has alarmed French politicians.

The implications of the UK – France Treaty for NATO was also a keen point for discussion – will it represent the emergence of a new European nuclear axis in the alliance, and what impact could this have on European partners who are keen to see NATO do more to support arms control initiatives?  And would increased co-operation between France and Britain on nuclear issues free up resources that would then be used to strengthen conventional forces in Europe?

One of the most striking areas of discussion was about public and government perceptions on nuclear weapons in France.  The French government portrays its nuclear weapons as being for deterrent purposes only, and as a symbol of French independence and political and economic power which entitles France to permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council.  Opinion polls show that the French public, although comfortable with the notion of deterrence, are strongly opposed to the use of nuclear weapons and support the idea of an international Nuclear Weapons Convention which would ban nuclear weapons.

There seem to be close similarities here with the UK, where politicians usually prefer to talk about an 'independent deterrent' rather than use the words 'nuclear weapons', and nuclear weapons are seen by many in power as symbols of national prestige and status.  The myth that the UK's seat as a permanent member of the UN Security Council is conditional on being a nuclear state is also actively promoted by advocates of nuclear weapons in this country (in fact, the United Nations was formed and the Security Council established in 1945, before four out of the five permanent members had embarked upon their nuclear weapons programmes).  Public opinion in the UK, although willing to accept deterrence arguments during the Cold War, has since swung against nuclear weapons on the grounds of their cost and necessity.

So, a stimulating day with plenty of food for thought – and a determination to continue campaigning on both sides of the Channel to highlight that the new Treaty poses risks to defence and security just as much as it gives guarantees.

Download the presentation given by NIS Director Peter Burt at the seminar here: