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June 23, 2021


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Turkey wants to join the European Army

5 min read

NATO member Turkey has applied to participate in the EU’s Dutch-led military project on military mobility, despite tense relations with Greece and Cyprus. While the request is being reviewed, EU diplomats are split over Ankara’s possible participation.

According to reports by “Welt am Sonntag”, NATO member Turkey formally declared its intention about participating in the EU’s military mobility project under the framework of the EU’s permanent structured cooperation (PESCO) of 46 military projects and is a sign of improving EU-NATO cooperation. PESCO is a framework and process to deepen defense cooperation between those EU Member States who are capable and willing to do so. It is an important step to create European Army. 25 EU Member States have joined PESCO and subscribed to more binding commitments to invest, plan, develop and operate defense capabilities more together, within the Union framework. The objective is to jointly arrive at a coherent full spectrum of defense capabilities available to the Member States for national and multinational missions and operations. This will enhance the EU’s capacity as an international security actor, contribute to the protection of the EU citizens and maximize the effectiveness of defense spending.

The key difference between PESCO and other forms of cooperation is the legally binding nature of the commitments undertaken by the 25 Member States which participate in PESCO. A formal request from the Turkish government has indeed been received by the Dutch defense ministry, which is coordinating the project, a Dutch spokesperson confirmed to

“Turkey has indeed informed us of its desire about participating in the military mobility project. As project coordinators, we carefully follow the application process established by the Council,” the spokesperson said. PESCO’s military mobility aims to support member states’ commitment to simplify and standardize cross-border military transport procedures, seen as the ‘silver bullet’ for EU-NATO defense cooperation and designed to ensure seamless movement of military equipment across the EU in response to crises. The key difference between PESCO and other forms of cooperation is the legally binding nature of the commitments undertaken by the participating Member States. The decision to participate was made voluntarily by each participating Member State, and decision-making will remain in the hands of the participating Member States in the Council.

This is without prejudice to the specific character of the security and defense policy of certain EU Member States. It allows willing and able member states to jointly plan, develop and invest in shared capability projects, and enhance the operational readiness and contribution of their armed forces. The ultimate objective is to optimize the available resources and improve their overall effectiveness, with a view to the most demanding missions and operations and contributing to the fulfillment of the Union level of ambition. Recently, EU defense ministers agreed to admit the United States, Norway, and Canada to join bloc’s project on military mobility, the first time the EU allowed outside countries to join any of its military projects.

The step was seen as a formality to formally inscribe an especially already strong NATO input by those members on European territory. As EURACTIV reported in late October, the EU had agreed on a stringent set of political, legal, and “substantive” conditions to allow countries outside the bloc to participate in joint defense projects. Under the deal, brokered by the German EU presidency, political conditions for third countries limit their participation to cases where they provide “substantial added value” to the military project and share “the values on which the EU is founded”, meaning that they do not contravene its security and defense interests. Many EU diplomats then agreed that the set of political conditions effectively excluded Russia, China, but also Turkey, especially after relations between Brussels and Ankara have deteriorated in the past few years. Turkey was a ‘certain outsider’, to remain outside the framework, at least until the dispute with Cyprus over activities in the Eastern Mediterranean is resolved and tensions in the stand-off with Greece and France are defused.

Turkish officials then warned that “if PESCO starts on the wrong footing and creates new division lines, it will be neither be successful nor contribute to the transatlantic security architecture”. Asked by EURACTIV, how the application goes together with the conditions for third-country conditions to apply for PESCO, EU foreign affairs spokesperson Peter Stano said that “the Netherlands, as project coordinator, has indicated that the request will be assessed by the project members, in line with the established procedures, as it did with previous requests. This internal process is ongoing” Asked the same question, the Dutch spokesperson said “non-EU countries are free to apply for participation in PESCO projects. After such a request, all project members must unanimously decide if that country meets the conditions”.

However, neither of the two officials did comment on whether Turkey’s application would fulfill the political conditions. A total of 24 EU countries are currently participating in the PESCO project. It is expected that Cyprus and Greece, both being project members, will react negatively to the Turkish request, seeing it as a ‘Trojan horse’. There are many reasons to back such apprehensions. Cyprus, which unlike Turkey is not a NATO member, does not have a security agreement with NATO on the exchange of classified documents because Turkey has vetoed the proposal.

According to diplomatic circles cited by “Welt am Sonntag”, there is in parts however the hope that possible cooperation by Turkey in PESCO would not only improve cooperation between the EU and NATO but could also lead to a normalization of relations between Turkey and Cyprus and Greece. At their summit at the end of March, EU leaders had promised Turkey improved economic relations, visa exemption, and new billions in aid to support the around 3.5 million refugees. EU-Turkey relations are likely to be back on the agenda of the next EU summit in June.

“If the political situation gets better in the future, surely Turkey’s participation in PESCO projects would be beneficial for European security,” Ilke Toygür of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs told media.

“But taking into consideration the tensions between Turkey-Greece and Turkey-Cyprus in the Eastern Mediterranean, and Turkey’s current democratic backsliding, it might not be the best moment to go for such a collaboration,” she added.

Additionally, there is also the fear of a “free-for-all”-approach once Turkey would be admitted, an EU diplomat told EURACTIV as to which some in Brussels believe could lead to the “dilution of the political criteria for other, more sensitive projects under PESCO and run a risk “undermining the EU’s initial idea of building a sole European defense capacity”

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