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Commentary | 5 May 2023

Recommendations for enhancing defence and security cooperation between the United Kingdom and Turkey

Image of Ahmet Üzümcü

Ahmet Üzümcü |Former Director-General of the OPCW, Former Permanent Representative of Turkey to NATO

Defence NATO Security Turkey United Kingdom Euro-Atlantic Security ELN

As former Permanent Representatives of the Republic of Turkey to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), we firmly and strongly believe that there is untapped potential for closer cooperation between Turkey and the United Kingdom in the defence and security fields.

There is much in common strategically. Both countries regard NATO as the foundation of collective defence for its Allies and the essential forum for  Euro-Atlantic security. For more than seven decades, we have worked together within NATO and contributed to achieving its objectives. For much of that time, Turkey and the UK have seen eye-to-eye in security matters.

The UK is a nuclear power, a Permanent Member of the UNSC, and a founding member of NATO. The strength of its naval and air forces as well as its expeditionary and superior intelligence capabilities, have been acknowledged by all Allies.

Turkey remains a bastion of stability in a volatile region thanks to its expanding military capabilities and the credible security guarantees provided by NATO. It has the second-biggest army in the Alliance, increasingly more capable air and naval forces, and a flourishing defence industry.

The assets and capabilities of the UK and Turkey are highly complementary. Opportunities exist to give more substance to the strategic partnership initiated in 2010. This would align with the post-Brexit policies of the UK designed to explore new partnerships and reinvigorate existing ones.

A strengthened partnership between the two countries could also help realise a more capable European defence that is complementary to and interoperable with NATO. This would be achieved by bringing together the long-term objectives elaborated in the Integrated Review Refresh of 2023 (IRR2023) and the extant arrangements in place since the launch of the strategic partnership between Turkey and the UK. Given the expanding strategic competition impacting Euro-Atlantic security, the time is now ripe to elevate their cooperation in security and defence to a higher level. Both countries have an overriding interest in achieving a European defence capability and avoiding a frictional relationship within NATO between EU and non-EU allies.

Turkey is in a pre-election period. The incumbent Government, which has been in power for the past twenty-one years, has undertaken new initiatives to normalise relations with several countries in the region and further improve cooperation with others. It seems to realise that brinkmanship does not serve the country’s interests, and cooperative policies bear fruit. Therefore, regardless of the results of the elections, Turkey is likely to demonstrate a willingness to work more closely with its Allies and European partners.

Given the present global systemic rivalry among major powers, and the willingness of Turkey to improve ties both on a regional basis and with its Allies, it is necessary to give more substance to the strategic partnership between Turkey and the UK based on a renewed and forward-looking approach. As two non-EU Allies, Turkey and the UK should seek to explore yet uncharted territory to strengthen Euro-Atlantic security and fill the gap in the East-West strategic direction regarding the ‘inextricable link’ between the Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific regions, as defined by IRR 2023.

The priorities identified in IRR 2023, including the ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ adopted by the UK Government, lend themselves to seeking new areas of cooperation with Turkey in security and defence from a broader perspective. Concerting efforts in this respect by way of combining the hard and soft powers of Turkey and the UK would also help facilitate dismantling the ‘new iron curtain’ resurrected in the middle of Europe by the ongoing war in Ukraine and be better prepared for challenges posed by an aggressive Russia and an assertive China. To breathe life into IRR 2023, a joint initiative – a ‘Concord for the New Era’ – could be launched between the two countries to meet the current and future challenges of the new epoch.

The scope of such an initiative to reinvigorate the strategic partnership could comprise the following elements:

  • Revisit the Military Cooperation Treaty of 2011 to reinforce it with additional avenues of cooperation responsive to the changing security landscape.
  • Harmonise efforts to mitigate against challenges the digital space poses, including cyber and hybrid threats.
  • Establish a permanent institutional structure of cooperation on emerging and disruptive technologies such as A.I., quantum computing, nanotechnology, space and cyberspace assets and capabilities, biotechnology, and robotics.
  • Launch joint endeavours for improving drone and anti-drone capacity, including cooperation in other unmanned ground and sea vehicles and hypersonic systems.
  • Explore avenues of active cooperation for the sixth-generation aircraft to make Turkey a stakeholder in the Tempest Project.
  • Seek to advance cooperation in maritime security and co-production of naval assets.
  • Develop new methods and mechanisms to enhance cooperation against hybrid threats and disinformation campaigns by state and non-state actors with malign intentions.
  • Synergise efforts and initiatives for more involvement as non-EU NATO Allies in the EU’s defence projects, such as PESCO, that are compatible with the Alliance commitments.
  • Deepen consultations on future challenges and opportunities emanating from the Indo-Pacific region.
  • Increase consultations on Southeast Europe, the Middle East, the Caucasus, the Balkans, Central Asia, and African affairs.
  • Times have radically changed in the global security calculus, which makes taking additional bold steps between Allies unavoidable. The UK seems intent on expanding its ties to bolster European security at large and the European pillar within NATO. It has demonstrated its willingness to contribute to that goal by signing the UK-France defence cooperation to update the Lancaster House Treaties. This initiative is necessary but not sufficient to fulfil the objectives sought by IRR 2023. It should be complemented by other arrangements to fortify European security compatible with the overarching transatlantic framework. Turkey is a good candidate and a vital Ally for the UK in a geographical location encircled by instabilities directly bearing on European security.

In this new era of increasing and unpredictable fluidity, it is in the mutual interest of both countries to increase the level of cooperation in the security and defence domains with a fresh approach. There is ample space for manoeuvre to achieve it on a bilateral basis beyond the already outdated framework of the last decade. The persistent challenges prevalent in today’s global security affairs make it more essential than ever for Turkey and the UK to explore novel ways to navigate the rough times ahead safely.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or all of its members. The ELN’s aim is to encourage debates that will help develop Europe’s capacity to address the pressing foreign, defence, and security policy challenges of our time.

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