After being vetoed twice for membership of the European Union in 1967, the United Kingdom was finally admitted at the third attempt in 1973. Today, the British government is negotiating to leave the EU, with the so-called Brexit.
There is no doubt that Britain has played an important and dominant role inside the EU, especially in foreign affairs. Its government has supported EU interests in the Middle East, protecting its oil trade in the region and fighting with radical groups such as Daesh. There have been some disagreements along the way, though. The 2003 invasion of Iraq is one well-known example. While the two leading EU countries, France and Germany, were strongly opposed to military intervention in Iraq, Britain joined the US-led alliance.
Post-Brexit, the EU may lose its diplomatic outreach. The UK will no longer implement the EU’s global strategy, and will be able to abandon initiatives of the European Neighbourhood Policy, the Mediterranean Union and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Britain will no longer be a party to EU cooperation with the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation. Thus, in Britain’s absence, the EU’s Middle East and North Africa (MENA) strategy will be determined primarily by the interests of other key actors, such as France, Germany and Italy.
How will Britain determine its MENA policy post-Brexit? It has two possible options. The first is to toe the “Atlantic line” with a focus on US priorities. As well as taking the US line on Iran, this could also see strong bilateral agreements between Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UK on other issues.
The second option is to follow a “European line”. Despite leaving the EU, Britain may remain faithful to its foreign policies. If so, what will Britain’s role be in shaping the future of Syria, its new position on the Arab-Israeli conflict, and its ability to implement the Stockholm Agreement on Yemen? These are significant issues that need to be monitored carefully.
In terms of Turkey-UK relations, it will be the first time that both countries will have the opportunity to cooperate beyond the EU. In the past, Britain has supported Turkey’s bid for EU membership — and still holds that position — and follows a balanced policy which does not damage its relations with Turkey or the bloc. Hence, it is seen that post-Brexit, the British government could have a more relaxed relationship with Ankara. This bilateralism is manifested today in military and economic cooperation.
According to data from the Republic of Turkey Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the volume of bilateral trade increased in 2018 when compared with 2017. The Foreign Economic Relations Board (DEIK) of the Turkey-Britain Business Council, founded in 1988, gives a figure of 3,000 British-owned companies currently operating in Turkey. It is undeniable that the UK sees Turkey as a fast growing market with huge potential for British exports; Turkey could thus become an even bigger part of Britain’s supply chain, especially in terms of industrial machinery.
Since Turkey has custom union ties with the EU, its trade relations with the UK depend on the nature of the agreed UK-EU relations post-Brexit. According to Sinan Ulgen, a former Turkish diplomat and the chairman of Istanbul based think-tank EDAM, coinciding with the Brexit negotiations the custom union option for Turkey and the UK may be considered also as a “transitional regime” that would ease the adjustment pains associated with Britain’s exit from the Single Market.
At present, important steps have been made between Turkey and Britain on cooperation in the defence industry; an agreement came into force in January 2017 worth £100 million to develop the TF-X aircraft by British Aerospace (BAE) and Turkish Aerospace (TAI). Britain will supply equipment such as motors, radars and sensors towards the programme. This kind of cooperation creates good examples for the defence and other sectors, and it may show that London and Ankara can cooperate in foreign policy matters as well. While Brexit is a risk for Turkey-EU relations, politically it can be considered as an opportunity for Turkey and Britain.
No matter how complicated and risky it is, relations between the two countries can be turned into an opportunity post-Brexit. Military and economic cooperation in particular will be a huge benefit for Turkey and will increase Britain’s effectiveness in the MENA region and Asia after its withdrawal from the EU market. Britain needs a powerful counterpart to carry with it in the Middle East, and will not hesitate to choose Turkey as a secure partner to overcome the competitive challenges in the region.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.