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Between Noble Goals and Sobering Reality: An Interview with EU Nonproliferation Chief Annalisa Giannella

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Oliver Meier

In October 2003, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana appointed Annalisa Giannella as his personal representative on nonproliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Her main job is to oversee the implementation of the European Strategy Against the Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction, which was approved by EU heads of government in December 2003 in conjunction with the European Security Strategy.

Giannella’s mandate covers all issues relating to the European Union’s policies on weapons of mass destruction, including the current negotiations with Iran.

In a July 26 interview with Arms Control Today, Giannella discussed a number of external and internal difficulties hampering European efforts to develop an effective and coherent nonproliferation policy. The interview made clear that, on major issues such as talks with Iran, U.S. support for European efforts to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction continues to remain an essential condition for success. On some issues, including nuclear disarmament and the lifting of the EU embargo on arms to China, Europe and the United States continue to be out of synch.

Overall, the EU seems to have settled for a less ambitious nonproliferation policy. Achieving unity among the 25 EU member states in an enlarged union has become more difficult and sometimes appears to be an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve arms control goals. Given the current impasse on many multilateral arms control issues, the EU is increasingly shifting the focus of its nonproliferation efforts to bilateral agreements and export controls.


On Aug. 5, the EU submitted a comprehensive proposal to resolve the nuclear crisis with Iran. Tehran responded by dismissing the offer as inadequate and restarting uranium conversion operations at its facility in Isfahan (see "Iran Restarts Uranium Conversion"). Still, Giannella contended that talks between the EU and Iran had already had a positive effect in bringing Iran out of international isolation and halting the development of a potential nuclear weapons program.

Giannella predicted that the EU would support referral of Iran’s nuclear file to the UN Security Council if “the negotiation process is broken.” She argued that the positive element of Iran’s cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) would no longer counterbalance the mistrust created by concealment of certain past nuclear activities by Tehran. The IAEA has found that Tehran had previously violated several of its obligations under nuclear safeguards agreements requiring Iran to report relevant nuclear activities to the agency.

Still, in Giannella’s view, referral to the Security Council would be the beginning of “a new process” that does not preclude a political solution to the crisis. “Everybody knows that the Security Council can adopt sanctions, but the Security Council also can decide to encourage, to frame the negotiations. The Security Council is a process. It’s not a one-shot event,” she said.

Giannella also said that cooperation with Russia on Iran issues is “excellent.” Russia has completed construction of Iran’s nearly operational light-water nuclear reactor at Bushehr and hopes to build more nuclear facilities in Iran in the future. It has also concluded an agreement on the supply of nuclear fuel and retrieval of spent fuel from the facility. “We take into account the fact that Russia has already concluded a contract with Iran for the supply of fuel for Bushehr I. We also take into account the possibility that Russia would supply Iran with a Bushehr II reactor. On the other hand, we understand that Iran does not necessarily want to depend exclusively on one country and would like to have other guarantees in order to have a power generation program that is totally safe.”

Transatlantic Issues

Giannella acknowledged that transatlantic divisions on arms control issues remain more than two years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, which split EU members and boosted efforts to forge a unified European nonproliferation policy.

China Arms Embargo

Giannella confirmed that the EU still intends to lift the arms embargo against China eventually, saying that “we are always moving in that direction, and we are working in that direction.”

Beijing is pressing the EU to lift its 1989 arms embargo on China, while Washington is insisting that the EU retain the ban (see U.S., Israel Reach China Arms Deal). The current British-held EU presidency is unlikely to move forward on the matter because London is sympathetic to U.S. opposition to lifting the ban.

Giannella outlined a possible concession to opponents of lifting the arms embargo. She said measures contained in a voluntary 1998 code of conduct on conventional arms exports are going to be put into a legally binding Common Position. She also said that the “rules of the code of conduct have been reinforced and complemented.”

Other issues are also likely to come into play. Giannella noted that the EU is in constant discussions with the United States on those issues, including a regular strategic dialogue on Asia as well as a dialogue on East Asia that also includes Japan. As a third factor, she mentioned the necessity for China to make progress on human right issues. Giannella stated that “the decision to lift the embargo will be taken in the light of these three aspects. But as I said, the trend has been set, and it is for our political leaders to assess the balance of these three.”

Nuclear Disarmament and Nonproliferation

Giannella also acknowledged that transatlantic divisions remain on nuclear disarmament. She observed that “there is not necessarily a convergence of views between the EU and the Americans.” She noted that, although EU-U.S. summits usually agree on a common agenda to fight proliferation, past summits were unable to agree on common language on disarmament issues.

Efforts to close the transatlantic gap include planned discussions between the United States and the EU on compliance with arms control and nonproliferation agreements. “We have agreed now to conduct specific consultations in the field of compliance.... Maybe closer cooperation in the field of compliance can help us in allaying the concerns of our American friends. And maybe we’ll have more cooperation in the area of disarmament as well.”

Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty

The difficulty of forging common EU-U.S. positions was evident during May’s nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York.[1] Despite the failure of the once-every-five-years diplomatic session to agree on substantive measures to strengthen the accord, Giannella voiced satisfaction with the EU’s performance. She argued that, given “the starting positions of our member states, which are very different for political reasons, historic reasons, and because of differences of status in the [United Nations], it was a real effort, a real achievement” for the EU to agree on a common position. This binding document, which was approved by the European Council on April 25-26, provided a consensus basis and guideline for EU action before and during the review conference. The document included 43 specific measures to strengthen the nuclear nonproliferation regime, from making the 1997 Model Additional Protocol the new safeguards standard under the treaty to changes intended to bolster the IAEA.[2]

Giannella said the EU was successful in getting the support of a number of states, including members of NATO and the New Agenda Coalition.[3] She said it was the fault of certain non-European NPT member states, particularly those “who did not necessarily have the same objective as the EU,” that the EU was unable to translate any of the goals contained in the common position into action.

Nonproliferation Capacity-Building

Still, Giannella painted a mixed picture of the EU’s nonproliferation capacities. She highlighted that the EU is increasingly integrating nonproliferation policies into its external relations, in particular by including nonproliferation clauses in trade and cooperation agreements with third countries, and detailed a series of such accords. Such linkages between security and economics have been included in agreements with Albania and Tajikistan; an agreement with Syria has been initialed but has not entered into force because of “other events in the country and in the region;” and there is agreement to include nonproliferation clauses in agreements with the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council[4] and in the renewal of the Cotonou Agreement (African, Caribbean, and Pacific countries). The EU is also negotiating with Mercosur about a nonproliferation clause.[5]

The interview was conducted at a time of institutional crisis for the EU. In May and June, two referenda on the new European constitution failed in France and The Netherlands, raising doubts about the viability of an institutional reform of the Common and Foreign Security Policy (CFSP) of the EU, including the creation of the post of EU minister for foreign affairs. As a result, the EU will continue to have two officials responsible for its CFSP.[6] Giannella, however, was upbeat that this “complication…can be overcome by increasing coordination” within the EU. “I’m not saying that this is an ideal situation, but it’s not necessarily a real obstacle to the development of the CFSP,” she said, referring to the CFSP’s development as a long-term exercise.

Giannella mentioned a number of specific measures the EU has taken to support multilateral arms control institutions, including the adoption of a joint action to support the IAEA. Joint actions enable the EU to become active on a certain issue and outline the scope and purpose of the EU’s operation. In the fall of 2005, the EU plans to adopt a joint action to support the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague, which oversees the implementation of the Chemical Weapons Convention.

Adoption of another joint action to support the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC) is envisaged, but Giannella pointed out that in this case the EU is having difficulties in identifying a partner that would receive European support. That is in part because efforts to negotiate an international monitoring mechanism for the BWC broke down in August 2001, so there still is no multilateral verification agency in the biological weapons area.

The EU also lacks the institutional capacity to pursue all the goals contained in its WMD strategy. For example, a joint action to support the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty will not be worked on until the beginning of 2006 because the EU does “not have enough resources, whether human or financial, to launch too many joint actions in a short period of time,” Giannella said.

Despite these obstacles, Europe continues to pursue an ambitious nonproliferation policy. “Europeans are always in favor of a diplomatic solution, a political solution. If you read the WMD strategy, we say we want to fight against proliferation, but we want to address the root causes of proliferation. We try to understand why there are countries that are attracted by the development of a WMD program,” Giannella stated.

Click here for a complete transcript of this interview.

Oliver Meier is the Arms Control Association’s international representative and correspondent based in Berlin and a researcher with the Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg.


1. For a summary of the review conference, see Wade Boese, “Nuclear Nonproliferation Meeting Sputters,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2005, pp. 22-23.

2. For background on the EU’s nonproliferation policies, see Oliver Meier and Gerrard Quille, “Testing Time for Europe’s Nonproliferation Strategy,“ Arms Control Today, May 2005, pp. 4-12.

3. The member states of the New Agenda Coalition are Brazil, Egypt, Ireland, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, and Sweden. These countries frequently issue joint proposals to advance nuclear disarmament.

4. The Gulf Cooperation Council is an organization founded in 1981 that includes six Persian Gulf states: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates and aims to unify its participants economically and politically in a manner similar to the EU.

5. Mercosur (Mercado Común del Cono Sur) is a 1991 free-trade agreement between Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay. Bolivia and Chile are associated members.

6. Currently, two officials share responsibility for the EU’s foreign policy. Benita Ferrera-Waldner is the EU commissioner for external relations, working for the EU Commission. Javier Solana is the EU Council’s high representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy. The EU Constitution proposed to unify these two posts and to create the post of union minister of foreign affairs, who would be responsible for the representation of the union on the international scene.