EU develops its defences and Turkey is left out again

The European Union has long been trying to reorient its security and defence policy. The union made significant advances towards this objective this past week. Brussels’ recent initiative on establishing a Permanent Structured Cooperation received a major boost when it was approved at the EU council on Dec. 11. This may be regarded as a very promising development at a time where a Brexiting Britain a Trumpist United States pose unforeseen challenges to the post-Cold War security order.

The European Union’s new global strategy aims to respond to external conflicts and crises, while building the capacities with partners such as NATO. EU leaders laid out an implementation plan last December that includes ambitious milestones, such as launching a coordinated annual review on defence (CARD) that is expected to encourage cooperation between EU members and more importantly establishing a permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) between willing member states.

Permanence is the magic word here. PESCO was first introduced in 2009 as the EU’s Security and Defence Policy. There are two significant challenges to materialisation of the idea; willingness and capacity. On the willingness side, there has been a visibly upbeat determination repeated by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron. Now that the Brexit process is moving forward and the United Kingdom is no longer an impediment, the Franco-German axis has no important challengers to the concept.

It is the capacity side of the debate where the EU faces an uphill journey. Capacity building is basically about (a) how to use NATO assets more effectively and independently, and (b) how to build more on the NATO assets.

That is where Turkey comes into the picture. Turkey is not a member of the EU and thus is not a direct beneficiary to the ESDP. European Defence Agency (EDA) that is expected to take a more prominent role in procurement of Europe-wide defence contracts, leaves Turkey out.  

On the other hand, Turkey is a NATO member and has the largest military in Europe. Turkish officers are active participants in NATO’s Research and Technology Organisation (RTO). Turkey is also a non-member participating state at OCCAR (Organisation for Joint Armament Cooperation) that has the United Kingdom as a member.

Ankara has been frustrated to be left out of the ESDP process. Turkey regards its wide-ranging contributions to NATO assets and combat capabilities during and after the Cold War as fairly sufficient evidence to be invited as an equal non-member partner to the development of PESCO. This is obviously a self-fulfilling prophecy as Turkey is not and will not be a member of the EU any time soon, and more importantly PESCO is a EU-branded concept.

Negative developments in the near past do not provide any hope that such an invitation will ever be extended to Turkey. Turkey blocked the EU’s full access to NATO assets during the early to mid 2000s when the EU was testing its operational readiness in the Western Balkans through EUFOR missions. The rivalry between EU members Greece and Cyprus, and Turkey is to be blamed for this as well as the Franco-German aversion to Turkey’s eventual membership to the EU.

What makes PESCO a little different from earlier EU security instruments is its flexibility, only the willing are asked to participate and provided with relative autonomy to participate in projects of choice. Furthermore, positioning of the European Defence Agency as the main hub to receive, evaluate and coordinate proposals on defence technology and innovation is a mouth watering development for defence contractors. Erdoğan’s regime (Erdoğan’s son-in-law is a defence industrialist focusing on militarised drones) has been investing heavily in developing Turkey’s own defence industry with the objective lessening Ankara’s dependency on the U.S.-origin defence contractors (i.e. S-400 missile systems deal with Russia).

The Turkish government has been having a rough time with NATO lately; the recent scandal when Mustafa Kemal Ataturk’s image and Erdoğan’s name were posted as enemies on a virtual simulation in Norway’s NATO Joint Warfare Centre and Ankara’s subsequent very strong reaction further underscored Turkey’s growing unease at being a NATO member.

Meanwhile paradoxically Turkish defence contractors such as the government-controlled Aselsan and Roketsan seek bilateral deals with European defence manufacturers like the European defence giant Eurosam that recently signed a new project with French and Italian governments to develop Turkey’s Air and Missile Defence System under the NATO umbrella.

NATO remains the only viable platform through which Turkish and European defence corporations collaborate. It would be interesting to see once the European Defence Agency takes the helm of the European Defence industries and PESCO becomes more of a reality than a set of signed memoranda of understanding between the willing EU governments, how Turkey’s defence industry will develop its European market strategy.

It seems the most likely scenario is that the nascent Turkish defence industry will be inclined to look elsewhere towards the likes of China, South Korea and Russia for future partnerships.