Europe’s embargo threat rings hollow in Turkey

SPEAKING OUT: Syrian protesters carry a banner that reads "the north and east of Syria will become a cemetery for Erdogan and Daech (Islamic State)," as they march in the northern town of Hasakeh against the Turkish offensive on Kurdish-held towns on Oct. 12. AFP via Getty Images/Tribune News Service

ANKARA, Turkey – Following days of condemnation over Turkey’s military offensive into Syria, all the European Union could decide on was to ask member states to think twice before signing new arms deals with Ankara.

Foreign ministers from the EU’s 28 nations agreed Monday to restrict defense industry exports to Turkey to send President Recep Tayyip Erdogan a message of rebuke.

But the measure is already ringing hollow in Turkey, where policymakers say they have been reducing reliance on European defense manufacturers and that any impact from embargoes currently being discussed will be negligible.

The limited decision by top diplomats in Luxembourg shows the EU’s diminishing leverage in its ailing relationship with Ankara, which has threatened to unleash a new wave of mass migration on Europe’s borders. The EU has little preparation to keep refugees at bay, should Turkey abandon the 2016 deal it signed with the EU to staunch the flow of migrants.

A new influx, even if nowhere near the same scale, has the potential to stir up trouble for European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel who suffered from the populist backlash against her open-door policy that allowed entry to more than a million asylum-seekers.

The latest row between Turkey and the EU erupted when Erdogan said he was willing to forgo the refugee deal if Europe continued its attacks on his policies in Syria.

“If you try to define our operation as an invasion, then our job becomes easy,” Erdogan said last week. “We open the gates and send the 3.6 million refugees to you.”

His remarks set off a flurry of objections, with European Council President Donald Tusk warning the Turkish president against “weaponizing” the refugees and blackmailing Europe.

Germany led the way in Europe, imposing a unilateral ban on future arms shipments that could be used in Syria. Merkel spoke to Erdogan by phone for about an hour Sunday and urged the Turkish leader to end the incursion, reinforcing comments by EU member states and the bloc’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini.

But the anger seems to have produced little in joint action. On Monday, the EU foreign ministers vowed to take “strong national position,” failing to deliver a unified response as a bloc.

Following the meeting, Mogherini said that an EU-level arms ban could have posed tricky issues for countries in the bloc that also belong to NATO, whose members also include Turkey.

The EU deal sets the stage for deliberations over Turkey by EU government leaders when they meet Thursday and Friday in Brussels. The bloc is also weighing whether to impose sanctions against Turkey over its oil and natural-gas exploration off member country Cyprus.

To be sure, the EU has additional points of leverage. Turkey has long sought to join the bloc, but those hopes had been fading even before the aggression in Syria. The bloc has essentially frozen membership talks with Turkey that began in 2005 in part because of a crackdown by Erdogan on political opponents at home. The EU is also Turkey’s largest trading partner, with 76.1 billion euros ($83.9 billion) of its exports going to the bloc last year.

But arms transactions are another matter. Turkey’s imports of arms and ammunition from the EU during the first eight months of the year were worth around $60 million, out of a total purchase of $300 million, according to official foreign trade data.

Ankara’s dependence on imports from the EU is at a minimal level and measures have already been taken to deal with spare parts shortage to prepare against a possible embargo, two senior Turkish officials with knowledge of the matter said, asking not to be identified discussing confidential deliberations. The cross-border operation criticized by the EU nations, code named “Peace Spring,” won’t get affected by the current EU measures, they said.

The stockpiling of key weaponry is in line with previous Turkish practice. Earlier this year, it emerged that Turkey has been doing the same with crucial spare parts for American-made fighter jets in anticipation of possible sanctions over its decision to buy a Russian missile defense system.

According to the two officials, EU threats are probably populist banter while member states are fully aware of challenging Turkey on the refugee issue and delivering stinging sanctions.

Turkey is a major military spender and has NATO’s second largest army, conducting operations from Syria and Iraq to the Mediterranean Sea, Afghanistan and Qatar. Its military footprint is a drag on its ailing fiscal outlook and would take a even heavier toll should the Europeans expand the scope of their sanctions to economic ties.

On the defense front, however, what can really bite Ankara is any EU decision to roll back long-term purchase and collaboration projects the NATO ally relies on to develop its key capabilities, according to Turan Oguz, a Turkey-based defense industry analyst.

One such deal is with Germany for production of six submarines for the Turkish navy, Oguz said. In addition, Turkey has cooperation agreements with France and Italy for joint work on air defense systems, which stand to be affected from a more comprehensive ban that could be applied retrospectively, Oguz said.

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