NATO-EU differences exposed by Turkey dilemma
EU leaders on Friday postponed the discussion of a potential arms embargo on Turkey to the bloc’s March 2021 summit. German Chancellor Angela Merkel said after last week’s meeting that the EU had agreed to prepare limited sanctions on Turkish individuals involved in oil exploration activities in the eastern Mediterranean, but put off taking any harsher steps for now.
Merkel used both her skill and her capacity as the sessional president of the European Council to arrange this postponement. She thus solved three problems. One is that NATO, rather than the EU, is a more appropriate organization to discuss anything that pertains to arms or military equipment. Second, she thought that it would be more appropriate to postpone the discussion on this issue until after the Biden administration assumes presidential functions in January, as the US’ attitude toward sanctions on Turkey will be complementary to the EU’s. Third, it would be more appropriate to discuss a subject that is so critical for Turkey in a forum where it is also present and can explain its position.
As a result, the expectations of Greece, Cyprus, France and Austria — countries that were trying to block arms sales to Turkey — were not met.
These debates coincided with two other related issues. One was the US Congress’ adoption of Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act measures to be imposed on Turkey. As the Senate vote passed with a two-thirds majority, it cannot be vetoed by the president. Trump now has to choose at least five out of 12 measures contained in the law. This will not have a devastating effect on Turkey, as the outgoing president is not expected to pick the most biting measures. However, it will have a negative effect on Turkey’s image in the international arena and will deter foreign investments.
Any improvement in NATO also promotes Turkey’s image, as it is an important member of the alliance.
The second issue was a positive one, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this month launching an important initiative dubbed “NATO 2030.” The North Atlantic alliance has a tradition of adapting its strategic concept to the changing geopolitical realities and challenges. The last such adaptation was carried out in 2010. Stoltenberg aims at submitting the new strategy to the NATO summit scheduled for the spring of 2021. Any improvement in NATO also promotes Turkey’s image, as it is an important member of the alliance, boasting its second-biggest army after the US.
The most substantive contribution to Stoltenberg’s initiative is a report titled “NATO 2030: United for a New Era,” which was drafted by a group of experts. The group was actually made up of more than just experts, as it included former ministers and diplomats. It was co-chaired by former German Defense Minister Thomas de Maiziere and former US diplomat Wess Mitchell. The group also included former French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and 10 other eminent members.
The new strategy turns the alliance’s attention to new areas where Turkey is active, such as the Middle East, Libya, the eastern Mediterranean, and the Caucasus. China also appears on the radar screen of NATO’s new strategy and Turkey has an important stake in Xinjiang province, where there is a sizable Uighur community, which has strong ethnic, cultural and linguistic ties with the Turks.
In other words, NATO’s new strategy brings Turkey more to the fore. However, Ankara’s purchase of the Russian-manufactured S-400 missile defense system; its cooperation with Russia in the Sochi/Astana process on Syria; its alternating confrontation and cooperation with Moscow in Idlib and Libya; and Russia’s sidelining of the Minsk Group it co-chairs with France and the US in the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute in order to cooperate with Turkey will all cause unease in NATO.
One day before last week’s EU meeting that was to debate various aspects of Turkey’s relations with the bloc, including the potential ban on arms sales, Stoltenberg called on the EU to underline Turkey’s importance as an ally. He acknowledged the existence of differences and disagreements, but added that “we need to make sure that we realize the importance of Turkey as part of NATO and also part of the Western family.”
So there is a stark contrast between Turkey’s image in these two different Western organizations, which are composed of more or less the same countries.
Upon the postponement of the EU decision to March, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said: “They will not be able to do anything in March either.” His nonchalance is probably due to the fact that, each time Western countries impose an embargo on Turkey for a given weapon or military equipment, it has led to the initiation of Turkey’s defense industry in that particular field. The same may happen again soon, allowing Turkey’s dynamic defense industry to open up new sectors.
- Yasar Yakis is a former foreign minister of Turkey and founding member of the ruling AK Party. Twitter: @yakis_yasar