Turkey-France spat exposes NATO’s fragility, ex-Spanish foreign minister says

The spat between NATO allies Turkey and France is exposing the alliance’s fragility, ex-Spanish foreign minister Ana Palacio said.

The dispute began in mid-June, when a French navy frigate under NATO command in the Mediterranean attempted to inspect a Turkish-escorted cargo vessel suspected of violating a United Nations arms embargo on Libya. 

France said that three Turkish ships accompanying the cargo vessel were “extremely aggressive” toward its frigate, flashing their radar lights three times, indicating imminent engagement. 

Turkey denied France’s account, and said that the French frigate was harassing its ships.

“Whatever the details, the fact is that two NATO allies came very close to exchanging fire in the context of a NATO mission. That is a new low for the alliance - one that may herald its demise,” Palacio wrote on Project Syndicate’s website on Wednesday. 

Without U.S. leadership, especially under President Donald Trump, NATO allies have begun to head off in different directions, and Turkey is “the clearest example,” she said.

Last year, Turkey purchased a Russian S-400 missile-defence system, despite U.S. and NATO objections. In recent months Turkey has intervened in Libya, providing air support, weapons, and fighters to the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord.

“Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan seems confident that his direct relationship with Trump will protect him from suffering any consequences for his behaviour,” Palacio said. 

“Trump’s decision not to impose sanctions over the missile purchase, beyond cutting Turkey’s participation in the F-35 fighter jet programme, seems to vindicate Erdoğan’s reasoning,” she said. 

But, she added, France has also gone against its NATO allies by providing military support to the Russian-backed General Khalifa Haftar, who controls eastern Libya, in his fight against the Turkish-backed GNA.

“Last December, NATO commemorated 70 years of underpinning peace, stability, and prosperity on both sides of the Atlantic,” Palacio said. “But cracks in the alliance are deepening, raising serious doubts about whether it will reach its 75th anniversary. The time for Europe to shore up its defences and capabilities is now.”