Turkey and the EU: Arms Trade Friends or Foes?

By: Dr. An Vranckx, Expert Analyst and Adviser, Catalystas Consulting and Aviva Stein, Strategy and Development Consultant, Catalystas Consulting

There is little as confusing in the world of international relations as the issue of moving weapons across borders. Following the aftermath of the 2016 failed coup in Turkey and the subsequent crackdown by the Turkish state on the predominantly Kurdish cities in the south, Dutch NGO Pax released a report regarding Turkey’s expanding military industry. The report recommended that EU countries restrain their arms transfers to Turkey, especially to its land and air forces, until progress towards a political solution with the Kurds could be made. Yet, the Consolidated Report on all EU countries’ exports of military goods and technologies shows that EU country exports to Turkey have actually increased, compared to prior years. Values reached nearly €3 billion worth of export licenses over 2017, with Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, and the UK all authorizing millions worth of export licenses for military goods destined to Turkey. The value of military sales from EU countries could have been even higher, if their strategic export control authorities had not refused 16 requests for export licenses to Turkey – a demonstration of caution which would likely have been unheard of prior to the coup attempt.

Though the EU is an economic union, in which all states honor a collectively agreed upon system of approving or denying trade partners and contracts based on a delineated set of 8 criteria, economic decisions do not happen in a vacuum. In the framework of the 2008 EU Common Position on military trade, to which all EU countries adhere, each country’s national export control authorities decide on exports to non-EU countries on a case-by-case basis. In cases such as arms trade deals with Turkey, geopolitical and military influences must also be considered as key factors in these export decisions. As a ‘safe’ ally and member of NATO, Turkey has rarely been denied the opportunity to buy and import military goods or technologies from EU countries. The US influence over NATO also sways these export decisions towards serving foreign policy and military priorities rather than solely economic incentives. However, some EU nations are more cautious than others, with the notable example of the Netherlands’ refusal to sell aircrafts to Turkey – although military naval equipment is still permitted.

Of the criteria spelled out in the EU Common Position, only one leads to a mandatory prohibition on export authorization: the obligation to adhere to embargoes set by international authorities, such as the UN Security Council or the EU’s own Council. This adherence to embargoes has resulted in hindering some arms trade, such as in the demise of a French business opportunity to build two Mistral warships for sale to Russia – a particularly sensitive deal as Russia would have acquired not only the ships, but also the technology needed for producing additional vessels internally. After the Russian annexation of the Crimea, a retaliatory European embargo was put in place to prevent delivering goods to Russia, leading to the retraction of the French-Russian deal, though France renewed the deal with Egypt two years later. The sanctions against Russia have continued, with the EU’s leading members calling for their enforcement until progress has been made towards a peaceful solution between Russia and the Ukraine. However, in October 2018, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister noted the hypocrisy in disciplining Russia while taking no action against Turkey, which has occupied northern Cyprus since 1974.

No embargo is in place that forces EU countries’ arms export control authorities to effectively ‘blacklist’ Turkey. Once an eager applicant for EU membership, Turkey’s ongoing and recent actions call into question its commitment to peaceful coexistence and human rights. The Turkish state has used military gear procured from EU countries in ways that now embarrass its suppliers. German-designed Leopard tanks have been deployed against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the local allies of the Global Coalition Against ISIS in northeastern Syria; a batch of French-sold sorbitol, which can be used as rocket propellant, ended up in the hands of ISIS after vanishing from Turkey in 2015. As a whole, the current state of arms transfers between EU countries and Turkey paints a grim picture for the future of adherence to international norms and respect for human rights. Perhaps it is time to follow the advice of PAX, and support the sale of peace, rather than war.

Cover pic: Shutterstock.com