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[ANALYSIS] How will the EU’s Strategic Compass affect the future of Turkey-EU relations?

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Fatih Yurtsever*

The Strategic Compass that will guide the European Union’s security and defense policy was adopted by the EU defense and foreign ministers on March 21. Its goal is to develop the EU’s security and defense agenda over the next decade and ensure that the EU is ready to deal with threats and challenges.

The development of the Strategic Compass began in 2020, during Germany’s presidency of the EU Council. The previous EU strategic document, called the EU Global Strategy, was published in 2016. The EU member states then determined that a new security and defense roadmap was needed. EU leaders are expected to endorse the document at the March 24-25 council summit.

The return of power politics in a contested multipolar world

The European Union has for the first time officially claimed that from its point of view a multipolar world has replaced the unipolar world led by the US. The current international reality is based on dynamics, with an increasing number of actors seeking to expand their political space and challenge the security order. From the EU’s point of view, a great power competition has begun among the US, Russia and China. The future of the world order will be determined by the outcome of the struggle between the great powers. Russia’s intervention in Georgia in 2008, the annexation of Crimea in 2014 and, finally, the invasion of Ukraine increasingly threatened the rule-based international system. Russia also projects itself in other theatres such as Libya, Syria, the Central African Republic and Mali. It uses crises opportunistically, including by using disinformation and mercenaries such as the Wagner Group. Russia is grossly violating international law and the principles of the UN Charter and undermining European and global security and stability. For the first time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Russia has loudly declared that it could use nuclear weapons if it deems it necessary for its security.

The Strategic Compass has implicitly expressed that the EU thinks differently from the US and does not share all its views on the fight against China, preferring to use more cautious language regarding that fight. According to the EU China is a partner for cooperation, an economic competitor and a systemic rival. China has been substantially developing its military means and aims to have completed the overall modernization of its armed forces by 2035, impacting regional and global security. China’s development and integration into its region, and the world at large, will mark the rest of this century. The EU needs to ensure that this happens in a way that will contribute to maintaining global security and not contradict the rules-based international order and the EU’s interests and values. This requires strong unity in the EU and working closely with other regional and global partners.

EU strategic environment

According to the assessment of the Strategic Compass, the EU is surrounded by instability and conflicts and faces a war on its borders. It is confronted with a dangerous mix of armed aggression, illegal annexation, fragile states, revisionist powers and authoritarian regimes. This environment is a breeding ground for multiple threats to European security, from terrorism, violent extremism and organized crime to hybrid conflicts and cyberattacks, the instrumentalization of irregular migration, arms proliferation and the progressive weakening of arms control architecture. Financial instability and extreme social and economic divergences can further exacerbate such dynamics and impact its security. These threats undermine EU security along its southern and eastern borders and beyond. Where the EU is not active and effective in promoting its interests, others fill the void.

The EU, eastern Mediterranean, Africa, Middle East and Gulf region

The Strategic Compass also speaks of “provocative” and “unilateral” acts against the sovereign rights of EU member states in the tension experienced over the delimitation of maritime jurisdiction areas in the eastern Mediterranean, implicitly targeting Turkey. Turkey is accused of using irregular migration as a political bargaining chip against Europe. Maritime security in the Baltic Sea, the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the North Sea as well as in Arctic waters, the Atlantic Ocean and the outermost regions is essential for the EU’s security, economic development, free trade and transport and energy security.

The future of Africa is of strategic importance to the EU. Given its economic and demographic growth, the African continent has considerable potential. Stability in the Gulf of Guinea, the Horn of Africa and in the Mozambique Channel remains a significant security imperative for the EU, also as they are key trade routes.

In the wider Middle East and Gulf region, active conflicts and persistent instability put EU security and economic interests at risk. Addressing nuclear non-proliferation challenges in the region remains of critical importance. Iran is central to security in the region, though its direct and indirect support to political and military proxies as well as the ballistic proliferation and transfer of missiles and weapons to state and non-state actors remain an important source of regional instability. Efforts to achieve a return to full implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) are of utmost importance. The region’s efforts in addressing violent extremism will also be of vital importance to the global fight against terrorist groups such as al Qaeda and the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), also known as Daesh.

The EU and Turkey

In the Strategic Compass Turkey is mentioned under the headings of “partners” and “our strategic environment.” Although Turkey has been a candidate for EU membership since 1999, this status is not mentioned. Turkey is only referred to as a “partner.” It is placed in a different category than Norway and the United Kingdom, which are not members of the EU. The relevant section contains the following statement, which can be interpreted as a cautious message of cooperation:

With Turkey, a contributor to Common Security Defense Policy (CSDP) missions and operations, we will continue to cooperate in areas of common interest. We remain committed to developing a mutually beneficial partnership, but this requires equal commitment on Turkey’s side to advance on a path of cooperation, sustained de-escalation, and to address E.U. concerns, in accordance with the statement of the members of the European Council of March 25 2021.”

The March 2021 European Council statement envisaged that a positive agenda with Turkey would be launched provided that the conflict in the eastern Mediterranean is resolved through dialogue between the parties concerned and tensions are reduced.

EU compass needs to be corrected

The EU is repeating the same mistake it made with Turkey’s candidacy. Cooperation between the EU and Turkey is vital in terms of security. Since Turkey is excluded from the EU, it is pushed to the side of authoritarian regimes such as those in Russia, China and Iran. If Turkey comes under the influence of these countries and as a result pursues a revisionist foreign policy based on military force, such as the Blue Homeland (Mavi Vatan) doctrine, it will harm not only its own security but also the security of the EU. Turkey’s Mavi Vatan-inspired foreign policy has led to security challenges for Turkey and Europe alike. To establish security in the strategic environment of the EU, the administration in Turkey must first be democratized. For Turkey to democratize and develop the rule of law, the EU must improve its relations with Turkey and promote reforms toward democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

The Ukraine crisis has led to a paradigm shift in the EU’s understanding of defense and security. Turkey and the EU can improve their cooperation in the defense industry and security areas to a very high level. Turkey can play a crucial role in connecting the eastern Mediterranean to the EU. The EU can end its economic dependence on China by making Turkey a manufacturing hub. Turkey can be a bridge between the Gulf countries, the Middle East and the EU. Cooperation between Turkey and the EU in Africa can benefit the rights and interests of both sides. Turkey can participate in EU military operations (IRINI) and exercises. With technological and financial support from the EU, Turkey’s defense industry can help the EU produce the weapons and systems it needs in the shortest possible time. Thus, if the EU wants to be an assertive player in the struggle of the great powers, it should make the necessary corrections to its compass and change its perspective on Turkey. Without Turkey, it will be challenging for the EU to become a global player.

* Fatih Yurtsever is a former naval officer in the Turkish Armed Forces. He is using a pseudonym out of security concerns.

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