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Commentary | 4 June 2021

Security cooperation between Turkey and the United Kingdom after Brexit

Image of Tacan Ildem

Tacan Ildem |NATO former Assistant Secretary General and former Permanent Representative of Turkey to NATO and the OSCE

Brexit Turkey United Kingdom European Defence ELN

During the Brexit process, there has been a plethora of conflicting views over how to conceive the future of continental European security and defence. The post-Brexit period is likely to see that debate widen further. Following our recent article on Brexit’s implications for NATO, we seek here to analyse the potential direction in which security cooperation between Turkey and the United Kingdom could evolve in this new era.

The post-Brexit debate has been polarised between those who see the UK and Europe remaining close together, and those who see them going their separate ways. The idea of a ‘total divorce’ in the domains of security and defence seems unlikely, at least in the foreseeable future.

In the post-Cold-War period, major European powers created or strengthened multi-layered, multi-domain arrangements along multiple axes to shape the European security and defence architecture. There were also important bilateral defence and security relationships. Overall, those multiple arrangements did not put in jeopardy the indivisibility of security for the NATO Allies.

Notably, there is a long record of Franco-German and Franco-British cooperation in defence starting from the 1960s and gaining momentum in the post Cold War era.

The Élysée Treaty of 1963, the Saint Malo Declaration of 1998, the Lancaster House Treaties of 2010, and the Aachen Treaty of 2019 are just a few examples of Franco-German and Franco-British endeavours to contribute to European security and defence, in the context of various different security landscapes.

Those contractual arrangements have made their imprints in debates around European security and defence, not to mention the endeavours within the EU to develop a coherent and holistic defence architecture in the wake of Brexit.

Now that the UK’s Integrated Review 2021 (IR 2021) has come into being, the NATO 2030 report is in existence, and the EU’s Strategic Compass is under way, it has become more necessary than ever to reformulate new building blocks for European security and defence as it relates to global strategic competition.

The UK has always been a supporter of the non-EU members’ crucial role in European security and defence. Following Brexit and its IR 2021, it may once again take the lead in efforts to push forward the agenda of the non-EU members of NATO, including by expanding its cooperation with them to enhance their role in NATO-EU relations.

Among others, Turkey stands out as a good candidate for the UK to cooperate with in the formulation of such an agenda.  Yet despite the generally excellent cooperation between Turkey and the UK, there is only a brief reference to Turkey in the list of countries in the UK’s IR 2021 with which the UK intends to develop further cooperation in security and defence. It does not seem to be prioritised as a major partner. Whether this is an oversight by UK defence planners, or a deliberate choice, is unclear, and in need of deeper elaboration.

Turkey is the main gateway and nexus connecting Europe to Asia and Africa at large. To pivot to Asia, as the UK intends to do with its “Indo-Pacific tilt”, Turkey is needed more than ever. There are opportunities for the UK to collaborate with Turkey in search of the global links articulated in IR 2021. And that would bring mutual benefits to both countries, should they increase their cooperation on a bilateral framework expanding to security and defence. In the economic realm, the signing of a UK-Turkey Free Trade Agreement (FTA) on 29 December 2020, and its entry into effect as of January 2021, should give a new impetus to strengthening cooperation in, and joint production of, defence products by the two countries.

To take this cooperation forward, we recommend that Turkey and the UK should elaborate a Joint Vision Paper (JVP) to be shared within NATO, designed to govern an enhanced form of Turkey-UK defence cooperation. This cooperation would have a particular focus on capability development to give further impetus to the participation of non-EU NATO Allies in the structures and activities of the EU. Whilst developing this JVP, both sides could benefit from the relevant aspects of IR 2021. They could also be inspired by the provisions of contractual arrangements between the UK, France and Germany.


Possible elements of this JVP may include:

  • Focused, periodic and institutional consultations between the two countries to align (to the extent possible) their threat perceptions in the new era of strategic competition among particularly the US, Russia and China;
  • Common pursuit of reaching an agreement similar to the Lancaster House Treaties of 2010 between the UK and France;
  • Increased cooperation to establish a joint Centre of Excellence on Counter Hybrid and Cyber Operations;
  • Further cooperation on resilience-building, with the intention of creating a permanent and joint structure to fight against new and emerging security challenges such as climate change and pandemics;
  • Seeking novel avenues of cooperation to hedge against disruptive technologies having a direct impact on security and defence such as space, AI, Unmanned Vehicles, and robotics. In addition, it could provide for increased cooperation between aerospace agencies and institutions, including particularly in the joint production of fifth-generation combat aircraft, drone and space technology as well as the potential involvement of Turkish defence industry in the multinational project of sixth-generation combat aircraft (e.g. Tempest Project), and shipbuilding capacity;
  • Continuous sharing of best practices gained in expeditionary missions in a structured manner;
  • As elaborated in more depth in our previous article, a joint proposal to reach a ‘New Transatlantic Compact’ between NATO and the EU, to strengthen the role of non-EU allies in a more concrete manner to EU-led missions and operations, catering to mutual and shared interests in the new security environment. Here, the non-EU allies should develop a common position in the run-up to the upcoming NATO Summit in June.

The opinions articulated above represent the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the European Leadership Network or any 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.

Image: Flickr, NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization