What do Belgians think of NATO?

Belgium, NATO and tactical nuclear weapons

Thousands of them were encamped in European NATO countries and in the states on the other side, in the east, behind the Iron Curtain. More than 20 years after the end of the Cold War, nobody fears a decisive nuclear battle with Moscow anymore. But the tactical nuclear weapons are still in the depots in Western Europe. There should be several hundred, the numbers are kept secret by the USA and its partners.

For many years, no government in NATO publicly considered what to do with the nuclear deterrent legacy. Until the newly appointed Federal Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle called for tactical nuclear weapons to be withdrawn from Germany in the autumn.

The countries in the east of NATO see the withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from Europe, as suggested by Westerwelle, as a wrong signal to Russia. The Balts, Poles, Hungarians and Czechs, whose countries used to be part of the Warsaw Pact, are not allowed to station American nuclear weapons in their countries, NATO has committed itself to Moscow to do so. In the beginning, they had all the less understanding for the voluntary renunciation of nuclear deterrence in Western Europe. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen therefore warned several times against individual states going it alone:

"It is only natural that there should be a discussion in politics and the public about our nuclear strategy. However, it is of the utmost importance that every step, every decision is taken together within our alliance. Because this question affects all allies, it is about deterrence and the security of all of us. "

In the meantime there are signs of movement within NATO: In the eastern countries of the alliance, for example, there are considerations to agree to a withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons if they receive specific security guarantees. Answers to the debate about the future of tactical nuclear weapons will be provided this year by NATO's new strategic concept, one of the major milestones that NATO Secretary General Rasmussen has set for himself and the alliance. One of his predecessors, the Belgian Willy Claes, has already made a commitment: Together with the former Belgian heads of government Jean-Luc Dehaene and Guy Verhofstadt, Claes demanded the rapid withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from Belgium and the allied countries in mid-February. The nuclear weapons damage the credibility of the West when it demands nuclear restraint or disarmament from other countries, it is time to adapt nuclear policy to the new circumstances, Claes demanded in a radio interview:

"These so-called tactical nuclear weapons in Europe no longer have any political and military meaning, and that also applies to the weapons here in Kleine Brogel, which are located in the middle of Europe, after all."
Up to 20 tactical nuclear weapons are said to be stationed at the Belgian Kleine Brogel air base, about an hour from the German Lower Rhine. The B-61 bombs are stored in specially secured magazines in the floor under aircraft protection structures. Although security is sometimes relative: At the end of January, six peace activists made it over the fence of the military base. They were able to walk undisturbed for an hour through the base with the nuclear weapons until a guard noticed them - they then put their film on the Internet. The activists belonged to the so-called bomb spotters, bomb watchers who have been demonstrating in front of the barriers at the Belgian air base for years.

But unlike in the 1980s, only a few Belgians come to the vigils, choir meetings or demonstrations at the military base, regrets the Green MEP Philippe Lamberts:

"Some groups from the peace movement still demonstrate regularly at the barriers to Kleine Brogel, but there is no longer a mass movement. However, the political class today agrees that there is really no longer any justification for such weapons."

Nevertheless, the Belgian government has remained silent longer than others about the future of nuclear weapons in its own country. It was not until the request of Federal Foreign Minister Westerwelle and the appeal of the Belgian Elder Statesmen that Belgium's Prime Minister Yves Leterme took a stand. Leterme is now also advocating a withdrawal of tactical nuclear weapons from Western Europe. The Green Philippe Lamberts explains the long hesitation with the collective psyche of Belgian governments:

"In the Belgian government, and especially among the Christian Democrats, the maxim is that one must not hurt the feelings of the Americans. Of course, these are only symbolic weapons, but they are nuclear bombs, so they are still strong symbols. A request to the US to withdraw these would have been behavior from the government's point of view that is unworthy of a good ally. "