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Bureaucrats in Non-Proliferation Policymaking

Michal Onderco

Newly declassified documents of the European Council Secretariat reveal how mid and low-level bureaucrats crafted the cornerstones of the European Union's non-proliferation policy in the mid-1990s.

Bureaucrats in Non-Proliferation Policymaking

How the EU came to support the NPT’s indefinite extension

The European Union has a curious position within the non-proliferation regime in general and in the review process of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in particular.

As an international organization, the EU is not a party to the Treaty, although all of its members are. Yet, there are vast differences among them.

Some of them possess nuclear weapons themselves (France and the UK), and a majority benefits from extended deterrence under the NATO nuclear umbrella, but a strong and vocal minority is staunchly opposed to them (Austria, Ireland, Sweden). Some are believers in nuclear power for energy purposes (France and Slovakia), whereas others see it less favorably (Austria and Germany).

In 1994, the European Union decided for the first time to play a role in the NPT Review Conference, with a view towards the NPT Review and Extension Conference in 1995. Under the Greek Presidency of the European Council (EU’s Council Presidency rotates every half-year, and at the time the Council had no permanent President), the Council decided to act. This activity culminated in Council’s Decision 94/509/CFSP, adopted on 25 July 1994.

While scholars credit the EU’s action for contributing significantly to the NPT’s extension, we know little about how the EU decision was made. This is understandable, since the Council’s documents are formally classified for 30 years. However, newly declassified documents from the Council Secretariat related to the development of the EU’s position encapsulated in the Council’s Decision shed new light on process of adoption of this Decision.

The brief history of this position not only offers a glimpse into Brussels’s policy-making bubble, but offers good example of how a complicated policy process works.

The impetus for the negotiation came from the Greek Presidency of the Council, on the basis of the earlier meetings of the Working Group on Non-Proliferation in early June 1994. Although basing itself on political declarations adopted earlier, the Council could now finally count on all EU members to support its activities, after France joined the NPT in 1992.

The Working Group meetings are sessions where policy is crafted – these meetings are usually attended by specialists with expertise in a given portfolio. Whereas some EU members have such diplomats posted in Brussels, others (especially smaller countries) send their experts from home headquarters for such meetings. Therefore, the Non-Proliferation Working Group was composed of the core experts on non-proliferation from all EU members (twelve, at the time).

In June 1994, the Greek Presidency circulated a note on the preparation of the EU’s action. The note stipulated that the EU’s action should follow four main lines:

  • demonstrate a consensus among the EU members in favor of the indefinite and unconditional NPT extension;
  • joint efforts to promote the desired goal among NPT members not in favor of it;
  • to persuade NPT non-members to join the Treaty (and help them to do so if need be);
  • to send demarches to promote the participation in the two last Preparatory Committee meetings and in favor of the unlimited extension of the Treaty.

At the end of June 1994, these goals were almost word-for-word placed in the conclusions of the European Council meeting at the level of Heads of States held at Corfu.

The Working Group picked up the work almost immediately afterwards. In a meeting two weeks later (on 7 July), already under the German Presidency, the Working Group started to develop the wording of the Council Decision.

The minutes of the meeting show that Germany, as the Council Presidency, identified a list of countries which should be targeted for the demarches. Although we do not have the list of countries, we know the criteria according to which the countries were targeted. Demarches were sent to the countries which did not participate in one or both of the earlier Preparatory Committees, countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States, and countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

The goal of such demarches should have been to encourage the recipient countries to participate in the upcoming Preparatory Committee meetings. The guidelines for the content of the demarches strongly advocate the EU’s insistence on the NPT’s status as the cornerstone of the non-proliferation regime, and the EU’s objective of achieving an indefinite and unconditional extension of the Treaty. The first demarches were, if need be, to be followed up by second, more tailored, ones.

This strategy very clearly shows that the Council Working Group was aware of the EU’s power in its neighborhood and among many developing countries which did not attend earlier meetings. Although nothing in the documents demonstrates direct pressure, it is not hard to imagine that the EU’s enormous market power (and political weight) allowed it to have its word to be heard in the target countries.

In this meeting, the EU also discussed strategy for the upcoming Third Preparatory Committee. Apart from underlining the core role of NPT in the non-proliferation regime, the Working Group agreed to reject any conditionality for the NPT extension while continuing to act in positive ways in “neighboring areas (eg CTBT).”

Last but not least, the Working Group highlighted the need to arrive, as soon as possible, at the Rules of Procedure for the Review Conference. The RoP for the conference were incredibly contentious, and it took almost two years of negotiations to arrive at the formula – with the most contentious part being whether the voting (should need be) ought to be open or closed (the agreement on this part was not found).

In this productive meeting, the Working Group also developed the first draft what later became the Council Decision 94/509/CFSP. The draft identified three goals:

  • to convince states outside the Treaty to join it;
  • to encourage participation in the remaining Preparatory Committee meetings;
  • and to build consensus for indefinite extension.

These goals were in line with the goals already presented in the Working Group document drawn up during the Greek Presidency, and presented during the Corfu meeting of the European Council. Apart from provision of assistance, the draft called for the use of above-mentioned demarches by the Council Presidency.

It is curious to notice that, apart from linguistic changes (developed in the meeting of legal and linguistic experts), the content of the Council Decision almost did not change at all. Therefore, the policy position of the EU on a core subject of the EU’s foreign policy was determined at the lowest level – in the Working Group of experts. The draft that these experts arrived at in the Working Group was adopted unanimously by the Political Committee (the committee composed of member states’ ambassadors, though usually not at the level of Head of Missions) tasked with dealing with Common Foreign and Security Policy five days later. The following day, the motion was approved by the COREPER, the final preparatory body composed of member states’ Heads of Missions, who prepare the agenda for the meeting of Foreign Ministers, who approve Decisions. The proposal was to become a so-called “A” Item, meaning that the Foreign Ministers would not even discuss it; they only were to approve it.

After linguistic and legal input, the final agreement was put on the Foreign Ministers’ agenda in mid-July 1994.

The episode of how the European Union came to support the indefinite extension of the NPT in 1995 demonstrates that policy in multilateral settings is often made and created at lower levels, often far away from the limelight and cameras. A Council Working Group, composed of mid-level specialist diplomats, was the body that crafted policy which later became one of the corner stones of EU standing.

Top-level diplomats and foreign ministers were in this case only approving the work already done by less senior bureaucrats. 

About the Author

Michal Onderco

Michal Onderco

Professor of International Relations at Erasmus University Rotterdam; Affiliate at Peace Research Center Prague

Michal Onderco is Professor of International Relations at Erasmus University Rotterdam and affiliate at Peace Research Center Prague. He studies international security, with focus on nuclear politics and on domestic politics of foreign policy. He authored Networked Nonproliferation (Stanford UP, 2021) and Iran's Nuclear Program and the Global South (Palgrave, 2016). In 2018-2019, he was a Junior Faculty Fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation

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