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The Interpreter: European Nuclear Weapons Program Would Be Legal, German Review Finds

While the review is only an endorsement of the plan’s legality — not a determination to take action — it is the first indication that such an idea has escalated from informal discussion to official policy-making channels.

Few analysts believe that Germany or the European Union is on the verge of pursuing a replacement nuclear umbrella. Most German officials still oppose such a plan, which would face steep public opposition and diplomatic hurdles. Even proponents consider it a last resort.

Nonetheless, analysts say, the review indicates the growing seriousness with which Germany is preparing for the possible loss of the American guarantees that have safeguarded and united European allies since World War II.

“Someone wanted to see whether this could work,” said Ulrich Kuhn, a German nuclear analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It suggests people consider this a possibility.”

While few are convinced Germany could overcome its taboo against nuclear weapons anytime soon, the existence of the assessment suggests that under pressure from Mr. Trump and growing Russian aggression, the taboo has eroded to an extent.

“The fact that they’re asking the question in itself is pretty important,” said Vipin Narang, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology political scientist who studies nuclear states.

“What’s the line? ‘Amateurs worry about strategy, professionals worry about logistics,’ ” Mr. Narang added, saying that the assessment, by evaluating fine-grain legal questions, “is getting into the logistics” of a European nuclear program.

Germany, the assessment finds, could be granted shared control over deploying those warheads under something called a “dual key” system, an arrangement that currently applies to American warheads based there. This would be intended to signal that the weapons would be used to protect all of Europe.

The legal review was requested last year by Roderich Kiesewetter, a lawmaker, a former colonel and a foreign policy spokesman with Germany’s governing party. Mr. Kiesewetter’s office said it was unclear why the assessment was made only now, months later.

Mr. Kuhn suggested that the timing could be related to the French presidential election, which elevated Emmanuel Macron, a pro-European centrist who has advocated closer defensive cooperation between France and Germany.

Mr. Macron was elected on May 7. The legal review was concluded on May 23. It is unclear how long after that the findings were made public.

Any version of this plan would likely hinge on French-German cooperation. Britain’s nuclear program is small and submarine-based. Its pending exit from the European Union could also preclude British involvement.

France’s nuclear program, larger and more advanced, would be better suited to replace American capabilities, particularly the small, battlefield warheads that would be most useful in repelling a potential Russian invasion.

German financing and basing for the program would be intended to demonstrate its function as a guarantor of European security. Officials in Poland, an informal security leader among Eastern European states, have expressed support in public comments.

Some versions of the plan, including one floated by Mr. Kiesewetter this winter, would see the European Union co-finance the French nuclear umbrella in order to demonstrate France’s commitment to use the warheads in defense of all member states.

Still, analysts say that securing legal authority is only a small, initial step, and one that might suggest Germany’s desire to avoid, more than pursue, such a drastic option.

Mr. Narang compared the document to a review by the Japanese government in the 1960s. Tokyo, fearing the United States might withdraw its protection, issued a report outlining how Japan could build a small nuclear arsenal of its own.

Mr. Narang said the Japanese study was intended both to dissuade the Americans from withdrawing and to prepare a fallback in case they did. Germany, he added, today faces a similar dilemma.

While it is unclear whether Japan would have really followed through, the country did develop something called a “turnscrew” capability, which left it only a few months from converting civilian nuclear materials into warheads.

“These legal findings are part of that insurance hedging,” Mr. Narang said, referring to the technical term for when countries seek alternatives to existing alliances.

Even if allies have little intention of breaking from the status quo, he added, the act of planning for a worst-case situation makes it easier to imagine and, if necessary, pursue.

Source: NYT > World

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