Ankara’s bid to join PeSCo: The right thing at the wrong time?

[Illustration by Beatrice Bandiera]


According to reports by German media, Turkey has recently submitted a request to join the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PeSCo) project ‘Military Mobility’ (MM). This request was reportedly met with a certain perplexity, as recently relations between several EU countries and Turkey have been far from smooth due to disagreements on foreign policy interests and core values. Ankara’s withdrawal from the Istanbul convention and the so-called ‘sofa-gate’ represent some of the most recent instances of this process. However, this request could be an opportunity to lay the ground for settling disputes between Turkey and various EU Member States.

Military Mobility: What is it?

PeSCo is an initiative launched in 2017 by the European Council with the aim to enhance the instruments available to Member States for Security & Defence within a European framework. In this respect, MM ranks as a de facto flagship project among the 46 currently running under PeSCo.

Launched in 2018, the project aims at improving military logistics in Europe by tackling both bureaucratic and infrastructural issues. Essentially, the MM project consists in a platform to maintain high political attention on the work that has to be done on military mobility in Europe, coordinating a diverse set of initiatives involving different stakeholders and improving coordination between Member States. It also represents  an important instance of EU-NATO collaboration, thus helping to reassure Member States and Third Countries[1] worried about PeSCo as a European alternative to NATO in the field of defence. Coordinated by the Netherlands, MM involves 24 Participating States[2].

In November 2020, the Council of the EU – the body governing PeSCo, – in the Foreign Affairs/Defence formation approved the regulation regarding Third States’ participation to PeSCo projects. MM has so far been the only project in which third countries have been allowed to participate, with the official inclusion in May 2021 of the US, Canada and Norway. The new partners help recalling the nature of the project, which may be seen as an encouraging example of EU-NATO cooperation. In light of this, Turkish interest in joining MM appears less surprising.

Turkey’s bold request

Following Turkey’s request to join PeSCo, ritual diplomatic consultations on the topic have begun. The deadline for the EU’s response is presumably the next Council discussing PeSCo matters, which will probably take place next November.

Some EU member States are implicitly in favour of maintaining good relations with Ankara, such as Germany and Poland, and therefore it can be expected that the application will find some support. However, it is possible that Cyprus and Greece decide to veto Turkey’s request. A veto from Nicosia would be fully in line with the country’s traditional foreign policy stance towards Turkey, dating back to the 1974 turmoil.

Nonetheless, even if all vetoes were lifted, the above mentioned regulation for Third State’s participation prescribes some prerequisites to be met by the invited State, including respecting the Union’s principles as laid down by artt. 2 and 21 of the Treaty on European Union. However, the Turkish position with respect to these values may be a matter of debate, in particular regarding human rights and the rule of law: a 2020 report by the Commission stressed how democracy in Turkey has deteriorated since the July 2016 coup attempt, and how the country’s institutional setup does not grant a satisfactory degree of separation of powers.

In addition, the regulation states clearly that the country “must not contravene the security and defence interests of the Union and its Member States, including respect for the principle of good neighbourly relations with the Member States” (art. 3(a)). In this respect, too, Turkish position vis-à-vis the EU remains critical. Indeed, the Commission’s report candidly admits how “Turkey’s foreign policy increasingly collided with the EU priorities” (p. 106), and how Turkish provocations and EU responses have hampered dialogue.

Finally, besides these political issues, Turkey also faces a last logistical hurdle. Third countries’ participation in a PeSCo project is contingent to the conclusion of a Security of Information agreement with the EU, as well as of an administrative arrangement with the European Defence Agency. However, Cyprus has always hindered previous attempts to improve EU-Turkey cooperation in the field of security and no such agreements have been signed so far.

A ‘no’ for the better

So far, the Council of the EU has remained very cautious on assessments regarding Turkey. Discussing the topic in March 2021, it recognised that there had been positive signals from Ankara in the direction of a de-escalation of tensions, although the process remains fragile. However, admitting Turkey to a PeSCo project implies recognizing its compliance with EU principles and values and certifying a substantial alignment between the actors’ foreign policies. This would arguably be a significant step away from the ‘principled pragmatism’ approach advocated by the 2016 European Union Global Strategy as the guiding motive of EU external projection.

Undoubtedly, the relationship with Turkey represents an important issue for many European States, and for the EU as well. Recent Turkish activism led to more than one concern in European capitals, and Ankara appears now on many dossiers as a competitor. Still, Europeans have an interest in reversing this situation and in re-establishing mutually beneficial relations. However, PeSCo is arguably not the best way to achieve this. The initiative itself is still struggling to prove its worth, and it has been engineered precisely to avoid the inclusion of countries that, like Turkey, have fundamentally divergent foreign policies[3]. Nevertheless, there may be some space for turning this request into an opportunity to revive a political dialogue with Turkey. While membership in MM is now unlikely, this request can prompt dialogue between the parts.

In this respect, motivated by a potential future involvement in MM and PeSCo, Turkey may be incentivised to agree on a cooperation framework with the EU, starting from (but not necessarily limited to) more coordination on foreign policy and the settlement of controversial issues in this domain. Joining PeSCo would greatly benefit Turkey, as it would put Ankara in a position to influence European security policy while also profiting from the economic opportunities opened by the European Defence Fund. At the same time, resolving the Cyprus-Turkey dispute could remove the main obstacle to a more formal cooperation between the EU and NATO, and it would be a significant achievement for the EU as a global actor.

In the meantime, a technical dialogue to improve European logistics can be opened without the direct involvement of Ankara through NATO structures. This would allow for a preservation of transatlantic solidarity without having to involve Ankara in the MM project.



[1] This category includes the US, as well as EU countries such as Poland, which consider the transatlantic bond as fundamental for their security.

[2] All PeSCo Member States, with the exception of Ireland.

[3] Arguably one of the reasons for such a restrictive set of parameters to be included in PeSCo is exactly the willingness of Cyprus, supported among others by France, to prevent a Turkish involvement.

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