Determined to bring Paris into NATO’s military command after four decades of opting out, French President Nicholas Sarkozy is expected to announce France’s return to NATO’s military structures by April, when a NATO summit will mark the 60th anniversary of the Western alliance. Recent reports indicate that Paris secured U.S. support for the transfer of two senior command positions to the French. Nonetheless, discussions on the timing and modalities of France’s rejoining the alliance’s military structures will increase in the following weeks. Speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference, Sarkozy said that while pursuing this goal, he would not do anything that might jeopardize his country’s independence (www.euobserver.com, February 5; Reuters, February 6).
Recent discussions on France’s return to NATO’s military structures have highlighted the intricate links between Turkish-French relations on the one hand and their implications for Turkey’s relationships with NATO and the European Union, on the other. Turkey is a full member of NATO and is negotiating accession terms for EU membership. Turkey’s EU membership process has been stalled recently, and Ankara puts a large portion of the blame on obstacles created by EU-members France and Greek Cyprus. In particular, Ankara is irked by the French and Cypriot objections to the EU’s efforts to open new negotiation chapters with Turkey (EDM, January 20).
Turkey’s problematic relations with the EU may have negative repercussions for NATO-EU security cooperation. Paris has been pushing for strengthening the EU’s military capabilities without undermining NATO’s role in European security. For France, a greater European role in security and defense affairs would complement NATO’s collective security responsibilities. Despite the EU’s progress toward acquiring autonomous military capabilities, however, it still depends on NATO assets to carry out military missions.
Turkey supports greater European autonomy in principle, but Ankara is troubled by its exclusion from the decision-making mechanisms of the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP), the EU’s security arm. Being the largest non-EU contributor to the ESDP, Turkey demands greater participation of non-EU NATO allies in the European defense initiatives. Ankara supports NATO’s primacy in managing European security and objects to the development of EU-only capabilities that might undermine NATO.
In an effort to retaliate for the Greek Cypriots’ objections to Turkish-EU cooperation, Turkey uses its position in NATO to prevent Greek Cypriot participation in EU operations utilizing NATO assets. Ankara maintains that since Cyprus does not have a security agreement with the alliance, it cannot have access to sensitive information. Sources argue that this situation "makes it difficult to work out detailed tactical arrangements between NATO and the EU. It is a potential burden on operation settings" (Hurriyet Daily News, February 2).
Since decisions in NATO are taken unanimously, it has been suggested from time to time that Ankara could also use its position in NATO as leverage to remove obstacles in Turkish-EU negotiations, but Turkey has refrained from resorting to that option. Although Turkish diplomats carefully avoid giving the impression that Turkey might veto France’s reintegration when this issue comes on the agenda, some Turkish experts and academics call on the government to consider this option to counteract French policies against Turkish interests. Following the 2008 NATO summit, where Sarkozy announced his plans for reintegrating France into NATO’s military structures, a Turkish academic labeled a veto as a "low-risk" card and argued that "Ankara must ensure that Paris understands that rejoining France to the military wing of NATO will be possible only if France meets some of the Turkish demands. Negotiations on this issue must begin" (www.asam.org.tr, May 2).
Given Turkey’s recent frustration with French policies, it has been speculated that Turkey might threaten a veto in NATO to bargain for a lifting of French obstacles in Turkish-EU negotiations. Some see this occasion as a new litmus test for Turkish diplomacy, because, following the Davos incident, the government is under pressure to play hard ball to protect its national interests. Opposition parties expect the government to use the veto trump effectively (Milliyet, February 7).
Noting the eagerness of Paris to rejoin NATO, analysts argue that Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be caught in a dilemma as the April summit approaches. If Erdogan lets France have its way after having presented so many obstacles to Turkey, he might lose popularity at home. If Turkey uses its veto power as a bargaining chip, it might well backfire, because at a time when there is consensus on bringing France back into the organization, this move might isolate Turkey from its allies (Milliyet, February 6; www.cnnturk.com, February 6).
The feasibility of a veto hinges, however, on whether a formal vote is needed for a French return. French diplomats and alliance officials believe that a unanimous decision is not required (Turkish Daily News, July 24; Reuters, February 6). Indeed, France is already active within NATO, and French troops serve in continuing NATO operations. A French return would largely concern French representation in the command structure.
Before departing for the Munich Conference, Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan told reporters that Turkey was still evaluating a French return to NATO. Babacan noted that Turkey would await clarification of whether a unanimous vote was necessary. Describing the situation of France as a unique case, Babacan added "the matter is more political than legal… The key concern here is for NATO to continue operating as a strong international organization. But, we will see how the French decision will be implemented… Here, the modalities of French participation are important, and we expect the French to present their modalities in the coming days" (ANKA, February 6).
Though maintaining Turkey’s policy of ambiguity, Babacan avoided confrontational language. He gave indications that Turkey would prioritize alliance interests and go along with its NATO allies.
Nonetheless, even if a unanimous decision might not be required, political bargaining would be needed for the distribution of command posts. Given the high premium NATO attaches to political consensus among its members, France and the United States will have to work hard to bring Turkey on board.