Muddy Waters – What’s Behind the Evolving Tensions between France, the EU, the UK and Turkey?

In recent months, tensions between the EU and Turkey have risen, over what the EU has condemned as Turkey’s “provocative actions”, across multiple fronts. Turkey has been drilling off the coast of Cyprus since 2018, and has begun to search for oil and gas in waters awarded to Greece under the UN Law of the Sea. Turkey and the EU have also clashed over Turkey’s involvement in Libya, including the deployment of Turkish troops, contrary to the EU’s calls for de-escalation and a ceasefire. In 2019, the EU also requested a WTO dispute resolution panel over Turkey’s restrictions on imported pharmaceuticals.

The EU is divided over how to respond to Turkey’s actions, with Germany, who currently holds the European Union Presidency, favouring constructive engagement, while Cyprus, which is on the front line of Turkey’s incursions, is pushing for the EU to impose sanctions on Turkey. This has led to a somewhat confused approach by the EU which, in October, agreed to “launch a positive political EU-Turkey agenda”, while continuing to threaten to impose sanctions against Turkey if it did not cease its drilling and exploration activities in the Eastern Mediterranean. Turkey has ignored these warnings, and its research ship, the Oruc Reis, returned to disputed waters in mid-October – encouraging German Foreign Minister, Heiko Mass, to cancel his visit to Ankara. 

Throughout this dispute, France has been at the forefront of calls to confront Turkey over its “deeply aggressive” policies in the Mediterranean, and its increasing involvement in Libya and Syria. France chose to increase its regional military presence in the region in August. Despite being excluded from the original formation of the East Mediterranean Gas Forum, France has long viewed itself as a “Mediterranean power”, and sees the region as integral not only to national defence and security, but also to France’s ability to enact global social and economic influence. 

Relations between France and Turkey have soured further following the appalling spate of recent Islamist terror attacks gripping France, including the beheading of school teacher Samuel Paty in October, after he showed pupils images of the Prophet Mohammed in a class about freedom of speech. Macron argued that the terror attack was an attack on secularism and fundamental democratic freedoms, and posthumously awarded Paty the French Legion d’Honneur.  The President also initiated a crackdown on ‘Islamic separatism’, which has been met with violent protests in the Middle East and amongst other Muslim communities. As major French cities were besieged by Islamist terror atrocities, and other nations offered their support and solidarity, Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, publicly attacked Macron’s mental health, and backed calls for a boycott of French goods – decisions greeted with astonishment and anger in France and the European Union. 

The European Union’s institutions have come to France’s defence, with Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign minister, calling on Turkey “to stop this dangerous spiral of confrontation”. Turkey has responded by declaring that “in some European countries hostility toward Islam and Muslims has become a policy encouraged and supported at the level of the head of state … I am calling out from here, you are the real fascists, you essentially are links in the chain of Nazism”, a choice of language that only raised the stakes of the confrontation. 

The UK Government has stated that it “stands in solidarity with France and the French people” in light of the attacks in France in October, and has called on NATO allies to stand together to protect tolerance and free speech. However, the UK has been noticeably quieter on tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean, and in a recent phone call to the Greek Prime Minister “stressed the need for dialogue and welcomed the public commitment from Greece to resolve differences with Turkey diplomatically”. He confirmed the UK would continue to “work with both sides to de-escalate the situation”. The tempered nature of the UK’s diplomatic support towards the battle against Islamist separatism has also been a source of frustration for France, which had been seeking allies to address the broader challenge they regard as central to the terrorism ecosystem and posing an existential threat to Western values. 

For the UK, there are multiple competing interests to contend with in the Eastern Mediterranean and in its relations with Turkey, and there is also likely to be a desire to take a distinct path from the European Union. Not least of all The UK remains firm in its commitment to NATO, of which Turkey is a member. NATO has invested US $5 billion in military facilities in Turkey, and in March, the organisation reaffirmed its commitment to working alongside Turkey.

There are also economic factors to consider. In 2019, the UK and Turkey engaged in £18 billion worth of trade, and Turkey has been one of the UK’s prime targets as it develops its post-Brexit trading policy, with a UK-Turkey free trade agreement said to be “very close”. Turkey holds a customs union with the European Union but is engaged in disputes with the bloc around this, including imposing tariffs on some EU goods, in protest against the lack of benefits it feels it is receiving from the vast raft of trade deals being signed in Brussels. 

Given the wider geopolitical context of relations between Turkey and the European Union, and the UK’s close security partner France, a UK-Turkey free trade agreement could potentially challenge the Trade Secretary’s ambitions to promote “values-driven free trade”,  and could set an important precedent for how the UK balances its values, its strategic alliances and its economic interests.

As tensions continue to mount between Turkey and the EU and, in particular France, the UK finds itself caught between competing alliances and its evolving economic interests. As the Global Britain project seeks to decouple the United Kingdom from the European Union, the UK’s choices in its relations with Turkey may prove significant in revealing the overall tone and strategic intent of the nation’s foreign policy. The UK has committed to retaining its old alliances as it seeks to build new partnerships, yet the simmering discord with one of our most significant security partners and neighbours, France, could test this ambition to its limits.

BFPG Admin