Time for Europe to be a nuclear-weapon-free zone

We are entering a new decade that appears to be even more dangerous than that of 40 years ago. In January 2020, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists set the hands of the ‘Doomsday Clock’ – measuring the likelihood of man-made global catastrophe – at one hundred seconds to midnight – closer than it has ever been before, due to the imminent threats of nuclear war and climate disaster.

Now, 75 years after the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by nuclear weapons dropped on human targets, arms control treaties are no longer upheld, and governments have started updating and expanding nuclear arsenals. New technologies of command and control minimise human intervention and shorten the time available to consider possible responses, the probabilities of a catastrophic accident or mistake are increasing dramatically.

The world is at a crossroads and Europe has to make a strategic choice: remain part of the arms race or demonstrate global leadership by promoting a peaceful approach towards common global security.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the recession which will follow, teach lessons we must embrace to overcome the existential threats of the 21st century: nuclear war and global warming. Recent studies show that increased military expenditure puts pressure on investment in social – including health – infrastructure, while extensive military exercises and operations make major carbon emissions, driving us closer to extinction in more ways than one. All three threats result from forces of nature made dangerous by triumphs of human intelligence and all three can be solved by human intelligence and good governance. Among these, nuclear war is perhaps the least visible threat. However, it is the most likely to have an immediate and devastating impact.

During the 1980s, a powerful mobilization along with the European Nuclear Disarmament initiative, which was deeply concerned about the strategy of containing a ‘limited’ nuclear war in Europe, generated the necessary pressure on politicians. Mass protests and demonstrations against the stationing of short and intermediate range nuclear weapons (Cruise Missiles and Pershing 2) throughout Europe forced Presidents Gorbachev and Reagan to sign the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty between the US and Russia in 1987 that removed all ground-based missiles – nuclear and conventional – with ranges between 500 and 5500km from European soil.

The recent collapse of that Treaty heralds the proliferation of nuclear weapons in Europe. We are facing the modernization of all nuclear weapons in Europe and the danger of new ones. And it has opened the door to Europe becoming a nuclear battleground.

The US’s wider withdrawal from important international agreements; upgrading of the world’s nuclear arsenals; the production of new ‘low yield’ and ‘more usable’ nuclear weapons; the threatened resumption of nuclear testing; the aggressive positioning of nuclear weapons and missile defence/offence systems, and the severe global economic and social problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, have increased international tensions and mistrust and driven us once again to a position where, in the words of the original European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal in the 80’s, “a  third world war is not merely possible, but increasingly likely”.  This time however, the threat arises from military confrontation on two fronts – Europe and in the Pacific.

The discussion on global military spending has recently been highlighted by the latest report of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons (ICAN). This notes that, of the $1.9 trillion (€1.7 trn) global military expenditure, $72.9 billion (€65.2 billion) was spent by nine countries on nuclear weapons in 2019. The report calculates that this amounts to $138,699 (€124,065) spent on nuclear weapons every minute. European countries (UK, France, Russia) play a very important role in military spending on nuclear weapons, while in addition the US Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) turns out to be the main cause for the new push in spending on modernization and new military spending on nuclear weapons. This money should be better spent on public services, especially health and welfare as well as education, all of which need substantial extra investment in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For years the people of Europe have expressed their desire to be nuclear-weapon-free by calling for the removal of the US nuclear weapons held under NATO auspices and, more recently, by pushing for their governments to ratify the Treaty for the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons (TPNW).

So far, too few governments have responded, but as the costs of nuclear participation and militarism rise and economies struggle with the pandemic’s increasing social and political strain, these calls can no longer be ignored. Generations have grown accustomed to living in the shadow of nuclear war, but concern and awareness are increasing again – especially among the young.

The recent development in European countries hosting US nuclear weapons (Germany, Belgium, Netherlands and Italy) to question the policy of the US “nuclear umbrella” is a sign of hope for a nuclear weapon free Europe. Likewise, we welcome the heightening voice of medical, environmental and humanitarian organizations and faith groups worldwide to join the movement for a nuclear ban treaty. We call for a Just Transition for workers engaged in the nuclear weapons industry to ensure their livelihoods and skills are protected.

The remedy lies in our own hands. 40 years after the original European Nuclear Disarmament Appeal (END Appeal), we must act together to free the entire territory of Europe from nuclear weapons, air and submarine bases, and from all institutions engaged in research into or manufacture of nuclear weapons, again, with a Just Transition plan for the workers involved in these activities.

More European governments can, like Austria, commit to this by ratifying the TPNW and requesting the United States to withdraw all nuclear weapons from European territory and engage in meaningful negotiations on an inclusive new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) as a necessary step towards the renewal of effective negotiations on general and complete disarmament.

Every European government has ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons and should therefore take steps towards the creation of a European nuclear-weapon-free zone.

We must work together in the light of an understanding that all lives on the planet are interwoven, rethink what we mean by safety and defence and developing the ideas of ‘common security’. We must understand each other better – not seed mistrust and blame. As Olof Palme’s Independent Commission on Disarmament and Security Issues (ICDSI) set out, a nuclear war could never be won. A nuclear weapon free Europe would be the most important step to a transition to civil and a shared security, abandoning the road of continuous militarisation. Civil security, shared security means adopting appropriate lifestyles and revising global trade and economic relations to sustainable and socially just relations, as described in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

While nuclear tensions are increasing, we call on all citizens to organise against our possible extinction and to fight for a just, green and peaceful Europe, free of nuclear weapons, with security for all provided through other means. The situation is urgent. As we emerge from the pandemic, we need to build an irresistible pressure for change.  As the risks of nuclear confrontation spread from Europe, through Russia, the Middle East, China and the Korean peninsula, Europe should take a stand.

We appeal to everyone in Europe, of all faiths and persuasions, to consider urgently the ways in which we can work together for these common objectives. As before, we envisage a European-wide campaign, in which every kind of exchange takes place; in which representatives of different nations and opinions confer and co-ordinate their activities; and in which less formal exchanges – between universities, faith groups, women’s organisations, trade unions, youth organisations, environmental campaigners, professional groups and individuals – take place to promote a common object: to free all of Europe from nuclear weapons.

Europe must become a nuclear-weapon-free zone.