Turkey and European Security

11/07/2011 by Richard Weitz

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan was in Berlin last week to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the migration of Turkish workers to Germany. He used the occasion to attack Germany and other European countries for blocking Turkey’s accession into the European Union (EU) and for becoming “an accessory” to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorist organization by” turn[ing] a blind eye to the activities of the terror organization, on their publications, foundations, fundraising efforts as well as on those who let criminals roam freely [on their soil].”

With the Euro crisis to the West and the "Arab" Spring and the rise of Iran on the East, Turkey is becoming more central to NATO and European security. Image Credit: Bigstock

Erdoğan also complained about the failure of German authorities to extradite PPK members living in Germany and for discriminating against its Turkish minority. Approximately 4 million Turks live in Germany, where they were invited as “guest workers” decades ago when West Germany needed cheap labor to help it recover from World War II.

Turkey remains a major European security player, but its strained ties with the European Union (EU), combined with the complex relationship between NATO and EU, presents alliance management problems for all concerned. The most immediate problem is the paralyzing effects of the Turkey-Cyprus dispute on institutional cooperation between NATO and the EU.

Turkey is a member of NATO but not the EU, whereas Cyprus belongs to the EU but not NATO. The two countries have used the consensus rules of each organization to hobble one organization from cooperating with the other on important security issues. These mutual antagonisms have constrained NATO-EU cooperation in general, and disrupted the joint NATO-EU security missions in Afghanistan, Kosovo, and in the Gulf of Aden in particular.

The government officials and other influential people we met with in Turkey last month stressed they still wanted to join the European Union but they were not optimistic this would soon occur. The AKP government has introduced many economic and political reforms that conform with the EU acquis but also yield the benefit of achieving other AKP goals such as liberalizing the country’s economy from state control and subordinating the Turkish military to civilian control and expanding Turks’ freedom to exercise their religion.

Nonetheless, the latest EU reports on Turkey’s progress in meeting its accession requirements to join the EU describe Turkey as still needing to address several lagging areas, especially concerning media and other civil freedoms.

Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, a formal aspirant for EU membership for at least a decade, and has one of Europe’s most powerful military forces. For these reasons, it is impossible to construct an effective European security architecture without addressing Turkey’s role. Yet, finding an appropriate place for Ankara in the evolving EU-NATO balance has proven exceptionally difficult given the country’s continued exclusion from the EU and the dispute between Turkey and the government of Cyprus.

Turkish officials have waged a protracted battle to secure some influence on EU security decisions as well as to compel Greek Cypriots to reach a political settlement with their Turkish minority. In pursuit of these ends, they have proved willing to block EU-NATO cooperation on important security issues.

Since 2007, NATO and the EU have had 21 common member countries. But since they both decide many important security and defense issues by consensus, countries that have membership in one organization but not the other can exert substantial influence on the level of cooperation between the institutions. At present, NATO members Canada, Iceland, Norway, Turkey, and the United States are outside the EU, while the traditionally neutral or non-aligned EU members Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta, and Sweden remain outside NATO, though four of the five (Malta since April 2008 but still not Cyprus) have joined NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) programme. With Malta’s entry into PfP in 2008 and France’s re-entry into NATO’s Integrated Military Command in 2009, Cyprus has become the main outlier within the NATO-EU partnership.

Cyprus is not a PfP member and, partly due to a Turkish veto, does not have a security agreement with NATO for exchanging classified documents. As a result, it uniquely cannot participate in official NATO-EU meetings, though informal meetings including Cyprus do occur.

Turkish policy makers have been unenthusiastic about the growing security role of the European Union. They have definitely preferred having a transatlantic institution like NATO of which Ankara is a core member dominate European security than having EU structures potentially displace it. When the December 2000 EU Summit in Nice decided to exclude non-EU NATO members from the EU’s security and defense decision-making mechanisms, Turkey’s national security community worried that they could have little impact on EU policies that could affect Turkey’s security.

In addition, Turkish policy makers are concerned that about the EU’s lack of will and capacity to defend Turkey. In addition to Europeans’ often grudging support for Ankara against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) terrorists and periodic denunciations of an “Armenian genocide” that many Turks deny ever occurred, many West European governments proved reluctant to render Turkey military assistance during the 1991 Persian Gulf War with Iraq.

The EU also has a weaker collective military capacity than NATO, which benefits from its transatlantic connections and longer history. Finally, some Turkish policy makers resented that, due to the barriers placed on Turkey’s desired accession to the EU, the former Soviet bloc countries that would soon join the EU would have more influence on the organization’s European security policies than Turkey, a longstanding Western ally within NATO.

Partly due to these concerns, Turkey has opposed sharing sensitive NATO military information with Cyprus until its government reaches a political settlement acceptable to its Turkish minority. This situation has limited formal NATO-EU intelligence sharing since May 2004, when Cyprus joined the EU without accepting a UN peace proposal acceptable to the Turkish government.  Cyprus has retaliated by blocking Turkey’s participation in certain EU defense activities, such as the work of the European Defense Agency. Cypriots justify their action by noting that Turkey has not complied with its obligations under its EU accession negotiations to open its ports and airports to Cypriot-registered ships and aircraft.

The dispute has escalated to the point where it now impedes a broad range of possible EU-NATO cooperative efforts. For example, the various EU-NATO institutional arrangements and meetings in Europe have been constrained by an inability to hold formal sessions with an agreed agenda or the authority to reach substantive decisions.

In Afghanistan, the EU and NATO have been unable to reach a comprehensive agreement on how to provide security for the EUPOL personnel who train the Afghan police. As a result, the German-led EUPOL mission must adopt excessively vigilant security policies, hire private security contractors, and negotiate ad hoc arrangements with the commander of the lead nation of each of the many Provincial Reconstruction Teams belonging to the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force.

In Kosovo, Turkey has prevented Cyprus from helping train the Kosovo police force, despite Ankara’s support for Kosovo’s independence.  Thanks to its full membership in the North Atlantic Council, Turkey has the ability in principle to deny the use of any NATO collective assets for any future EU-led mission.

Neither the EU nor NATO will be able to realize important security goals without Turkey’s full support. Turkey’s potential contribution for helping Europeans enhance their energy security and counter radical Islamist movements is well known. Thanks to its large population and the geographically broad perspective of its national security community,

Turkey has one of the largest and most readily deployable armies in Europe. Turkish troops and commanders have assumed important roles in Afghanistan, the western Balkans, and other Western-backed peace missions. Turkey’s location is pivotal for sustaining any major NATO or EU military operation in the eastern Mediterranean or northern Middle East. The December 2003 EU Strategy Document for European Security described instability in these regions as presenting serious potential security threats, especially in the forms of terrorism and immigration, to EU countries. Conversely, the difficult cases of Iraq and Iran shows how Turkish opposition can severely impede allied military operations in these regions.

Resolving many of the EU-NATO problems involving Turkey requires addressing their root causes rather than merely their symptoms. Expanding Turkey’s role in ESDP decision making would ease many of the anxieties in Ankara about the Union’s growing security roles.

If Turkey is not to soon gain EU membership, then it should receive at least as much influence in ESDP decision-making structures as Ankara had previously enjoyed as an associate member of the West European Union. Alternately, undertaking a more genuine effort to bring Turkey into the EU would make Turkish policy makers more tolerant of exclusionary ESDP practices since they would know that this discrimination was a temporary phase pending Ankara’s membership accession.

Perhaps encouraging greater cooperation between Turkey and the European Defense Agency will help generate new momentum in this relationship. In September 2011, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said that “the EU would conclude a security agreement with Turkey, give Turkey special status with the European Defence Agency, and involve it in decision-making on EU security missions.”

But it remains unclear if the Turkish government will  trade its veto and non-recognition of Cyprus in exchange for special membership in the EDA when Cyprus is taking over the EU presidency in the latter half of 2012.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

—General George Patton Jr.

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