As It Happens

MEP arrested at airbase fears Europe will be the 'playground of a new nuclear arms race'

As the U.S. and Russia ratchet up their nuclear sabre-rattling, Thomas Waitz worries Europe could become caught in the middle of a new Cold War.

4 Green members of European Parliament arrested during anti-nuclear protest at Kleine Brogel in Belgium

An anti-nuclear protest sign is seen at the Kleine-Brogel nuclear base in Peer, Belgium, during a 2006 protest. Four Green MEPs were arrested at the base during another protest this week. (Yorick Jansens/AFP/Getty Images)

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As the U.S. and Russia  ratchet up their nuclear sabre-rattling, Thomas Waitz worries Europe could become caught in the middle of a new Cold War.

The Austrian member of European Parliament was arrested Wednesday while protesting outside a Belgian military airbase believed to be stockpiling U.S. nuclear weapons. He was detained for six hours and released without charge.

Three of his Green Party colleagues — the U.K.'s Molly Scott Cato, France's Michèle Rivasi and Luxembourg's Tilly Metz — were also arrested after breaking into the Kleine Brogel base and blocking the runway. 

The protests come after U.S. President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty earlier this month, accusing Russia of violating it. Russian President Vladimir Putin responded by threatening to target the U.S. with nuclear weapons, if it deploys missiles in Europe.

Waitz spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about why he thinks it's more important than ever that Europe become a nuclear-free zone. Here is part of their conversation. 

Your three colleagues, they were detained. They broke into the base. Are they facing charges?

They don't know yet, but we we expect charges.

What might they be charged with?

It could be a sentence up to five years in jail. But as they are without any criminal record, that would not end up in a real jail sentence. 

Actually, they are looking forward to getting a trial, because in this trial there could be a chance to clarify if and how many nuclear bombs are stored on that base. 

And so for you, this protest can become an opportunity to get a stage, a public opening in order to bring attention to what's going on?

Yes, exactly. 

We're fearing a new nuclear arms race here on European soil, and I think we should do whatever we can to keep Europe out of that.

Including possibly facing time in prison?

To have nuclear bombs on Belgium and European soil and having a Russian president clearly announcing that he's ready to point missiles on every place known where U.S. nukes are stored — I think this is such a security threat for, like, millions of people here in the centre of Europe that it's even worth being arrested for some hours or facing a charge.

Green Austrian MEP Thomas Waitz says fighting for a nuclear-free Europe is worth the risk of arrest or criminal charges. (europeangreens.eu)

What are the bombs that are being held at that airbase?

There is nukes there from during the '80s, actually. They were stored there [in] '84 and we don't know exactly how many there are.

It's not missiles pointing at something, but it's like old-style nukes that have to be dropped by an airplane. ... And there's an airport, a military airport there with, F-16 [fighter jets] that can be equipped with the nukes.

A fully armed F-16 fighter jet is pictured at the military base of the 10th Tactical Wing at the Kleine Brogel airbase. (Yorick Jansens/AFP/Getty Images)

Now that [the U.S. is] not going to observe [the INF treaty] anymore, what concerns do you have as to what other weapons might be stored at that base and others in Europe?

We fear that both sides will put some intermediate-range missiles on European soil ... and it's for sure not of our European interest to be the playground of a new nuclear arms race.

I grew up in an environment of Cold War where it was clear that any day an accident — or not an accident, but an attack on purpose — could happen and to have devastating effects on myself, on my family, on my friends, on my city.

I think we should never return to that old-school and backward kind of politics.

Since the end of the Cold War, there have been threats and escalation, sabre-rattling, and then things settle down again. What is it about this moment in history that looks so much more serious from your point of view?

The authoritarian style of Russia is well-known and I don't have a lot of trust into this government.

Up to now ... the U.S. were partnering also in trying to reduce nuclear weapons and to also find ways to communicate with each other, and to try to defend peace rather than make war games.

But now we have a Trump administration, where you can't say one day what's going to happen next day. We have a very unpredictable president there. We have president that acts really irrational.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, warned the United States against deploying new missiles in Europe after U.S. President Donald Trump, left, pulled his country out of a treaty to restrict the use of nuclear weapons. (Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA, Sputnik/EPA)

But at the same time, NATO appears to be supporting or at least backing Mr. Trump in his assertions that Moscow has broken with the treaty. Canada is a member of NATO. Europe members are part of NATO. This seems to be more than just Washington that is making these charges against Moscow. So where is it that you're going to see what you need to see, this de-escalation, come from?

I think de-escalation has to come from all participants on the table. But, especially, I think it's also the role of Europe to try to de-escalate here as much as possible. 

And my personal view as a Green politician is that Europe should declare themselves as a nuclear-free zone. 

I think we don't need to threaten each other with nuclear arms.

Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Kate Swoger. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. 

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