Without the UK military, the EU might need NATO protection more than ever, which can increase the political leverage of Turkey in Europe as a second biggest army in the alliance.
Brexit continues to send shock waves globally after the UK officially left the European Union on January 30, complicating not only London’s relations with the rest of Europe but also with other countries, especially Turkey.
With the UK gone, the EU is likely to need NATO’s military protection more than ever, as losing one of the continent's biggest armies to Brexit puts Turkey, a country with the second-largest army in NATO, at the forefront of securing the interests of the Atlantic alliance.
“[Brexit] will facilitate an enormous loss to the EU, striking a big blow to Europe’s defence and security policies because the British army is more or less the most significant force in the union,” said Selim Kuneralp, a former Turkish diplomat, who is also British Prime Minister and Brexit defender Boris Johnson's cousin from his great-grandfather Ali Kemal's second marriage.
In the absence of Britain, German and French armies will face the burden of defending Europe.
Experts argue that German and French armed forces may not be adequate enough to counter the resurgent Russia, which has been recently mounting pressure over Eastern Europe.
“Under these conditions, it’s going to be a little difficult for the EU to play a major role in the world’s security issues. These developments could have an impact on our [Turkey's] role in Europe. In this perspective, Brexit could not be a bad thing for us because NATO will gain prominence in Europe,” Kuneralp told TRT World.
“If [US President Donald] Trump does not ruin NATO, our importance will increase in some degree in parallel to an increase in NATO’s importance over Europe’s defence and security matters,” Kuneralp said.
French President Emmanuel Macron recently boasted about forming an army dedicated to defending the EU, but the plan triggered suspicion in Germany, which rather prefers a NATO defence line over a new military enterprise.
“Looking at the state the world is in right now, we have the European Union that cannot set up a European army of 60,000 soldiers for many years, and we have Turkey,” said Volkan Bozkir, Turkey’s former EU minister, who is now leading the Turkish parliament’s foreign affairs committee in Ankara, in a previous interview.
“I always joked, when I was a minister and at other times: ‘Make us a member [of the EU] and we’ll send a European army of 60,000 soldiers your way.’ That we can do within a few months. [Despite their talks] The EU hasn’t been able to set up a European army, there is no such thing right now,” Bozkir said.
Brexit’s economic implications could be more problematic for both Turkey and Britain.
Experts argue that a hard Brexit could endanger Ankara’s access to Britain, which is Turkey’s second-largest export market, because Turkey’s 1995 Custom Union agreement with the EU limits Ankara to cut free trade deals with non-EU countries.
In October, Turkey’s Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan indicated that in the case of a hard Brexit, where a no-deal situation becomes a reality, Turkey could be the second most affected country after the EU by London’s divorce from Brussels, possibly losing a trade surplus valued at $3.7 billion (£2.8 billion) with the UK.
But Pekcan also pointed out that Turkey has been pretty much prepared for the worst-case scenario as it continues to negotiate with both the EU and Britain to reduce Brexit’s potential risks to Ankara.
“If we have a no-deal Brexit, Turkey and the UK can only seal their trade deal after the EU and the UK have done theirs. And that would take years,” said Kati Piri, the former European Parliament’s envoy to Turkey, last year.
On the other hand, Turkey still has time to figure out its next moves with the EU and Britain.
While Britain left the EU last month, there is still an implementation process of Brexit, which will continue until the end of this year. During this time, the EU and Britain will determine the modality of their relationship.
“As a result, during this transition period, there will be no immediate changes taking effect in our trade and economic relations [with the EU and Britain],” Kuneralp said.
“In other words, the practices of the Customs Union will continue. Our exports and imports with Britain will continue as it is [under the Customs Union’s favourable tariffs and conditions],” Kuneralp explained.
The transition period will also not have much effect on citizens’ moves between the two countries and their respective rights, the Turkish diplomat said.
“But it is impossible to speak [in definite terms] about what will happen to our trade and economic relations with Britain after 2021,” he said.
“Whether we will sign a free-trade agreement with Britain or the rules of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will apply to our relations, it’s not possible to say anything about that at the moment,” Kuneralp concluded.