Turkey was at the frontline of defense against the Russian-led Soviet threat for the transatlantic alliance throughout the Cold War, making its military and human assets readily available for deployment by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). With the second largest army in this military alliance, Ankara was what our Western friends often referred to as the “staunch ally” in the most troubled and volatile region of the world.
But the picture has changed dramatically in recent years. Turkey no longer considers itself a frontline for anybody and Russia is a newfound friend who is ready and willing to boost trade and political ties with its historic foe, Turkey. Though the structure, membership and vision of NATO have also changed, the importance Ankara attaches to the military club has not lessened, but rather increased with the new role NATO tries to cast for itself in the world’s troubled regions, such as Afghanistan.
A question mark should be added to NATO’ perspective, however, when it comes to Turkey’s role in the 28-member alliance and how it is perceived by other members. We often hear accusations that Turkey hinders the close cooperation between the European Union and NATO because of the Cyprus deadlock. Greek Cypriots and Turkey play petty politics and obstruct the coordination of defense policies between the two leading organizations in Europe, critics argue, because Turkey is not a member of the EU and Greek Cyprus is not a member of NATO.
However, it is not as simple as it seems. The complicated issue would definitely make more sense to students of international politics if and when critics of Turkey stop overlooking the roots of the problem and pay close attention to history. For example, do we know that the EU failed to fulfill some of the promises made to Turkey in a 2002 document, which was a foundation for EU-NATO cooperation? That was before Greek Cyprus joined the EU in 2004, which turned out to be a major mistake on the part of the EU — as many Europeans now acknowledge. It may sound bizarre, but the tiny island has in fact been successful in suspending a past agreement referred to as the “Berlin Plus” agreement.
Until Greek Cypriots came into the picture in 2004, EU relations with non-EU NATO members like Turkey and Norway were going quite well. Both Turkey and Norway were members, for example, of the Western European Armaments Group (WEAG), which was later incorporated into the European Defense Agency (EDA). Though Norway continued to cooperate with the EDA following a special arrangement with the agency, Turkey could not follow suit because Greek Cyprus vetoed such agreements at the last minute, although everything, as part the EU’s pledge to Turkey, was agreed upon in advance.
That was not the only commitment the EU has failed to deliver to non-EU member Turkey. As part of the agreement signed in 2002, NATO member Turkey has a right to call for consultations with the EU during peace time on issues it sees vital to the security of the nation and to the military bloc. Ankara made two official requests, one on Iraq and other on the Russian-Georgian war, to no avail.
Unfortunately there is more. The lack of an agreement allowing Turkey to exchange confidential information and classified intelligence with the EU also hinders cooperation. Turkish diplomats say Ankara is ready to write an agreement to allow the exchange but they say there is simply no action or political will on the other side. “We cannot simply operate in a vacuum and provide sensitive information without a legal basis,” one diplomat closely involved in discussions said. “The problem with Greek Cypriots are twofold: First they do not represent the whole island, and second they did not recognize the whole EU acquis when they became a full member, denying previously negotiated rights on defense and security cooperation between the EU and NATO,” he emphasized.
We had a similar problem with new NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in terms of an unfulfilled pledge, but that was recently settled. As part of a last-minute deal with Turkish President Abdullah Gül, brokered by US President Barrack Obama, to overcome Ankara’s objections to appointing Rasmussen, Turkey was promised a seat in one of the empty chairs for an assistant secretary-general position. At the first opportunity, Rasmussen bypassed Turkey and appointed a German national to one of the vacant positions, naturally infuriating Ankara. Turkey was calmed several months later with the announcement of Ambassador Hüseyin Diriöz’s selection as an assistant secretary-general for another chair. Undoubtedly the US intervention made a difference.
The EU should do its own bidding as well and stop playing the blame game. It is time to pay heed to the concerns raised by Turkey if the EU really wants to boost the security aspect of the organization. As Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu made a cynical point to his colleagues during the ministerial meeting on the sidelines of NATO’s Lisbon summit, Ankara does not want to be part of what he called a “pariah category,” for which it enjoys neither full rights attributed to countries who are both EU and NATO members nor special privileges given non-EU and NATO countries, like Norway. After all, the petty interests of a tiny island cannot and should not be allowed to jeopardize the overwhelming interests of both organizations to cooperate. The responsibility is on the EU’s side.