Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s three-day visit to London in mid-May was billed by the British prime minister’s office as ‘an opportunity for the UK and Turkey to demonstrate our close bilateral relationship and to have important discussions about issues of shared interest’. This typically bland official language could not fully mask the controversy that accompanied the trip. Amid demonstrations and criticism, London rolled out the red carpet for the Turkish president, symbolised by his meeting with the Queen. The tone of the visit was illustrated by British ambassador to Turkey Dominick Chilcott, who enthused that ‘it is a great honour to have him and to be able to host him in our capital city’. Erdogan’s visit was tacked onto his appearance at the British-Turkish Tatli Dil (‘sweet talk’) forum, held just outside London. This is an annual event, alternating between the UK and Turkey and dating back to 2011, which reflects the joint commitment to maintaining a healthy bilateral relationship that was formalised by the ‘Strategic Partnership’ agreement signed by both countries in 2010. However, as Turkey’s political authoritarianism has deepened, Ankara’s representation at these fora have become more exclusively governmental and Justice and Development Party-aligned, while on the British side potentially critical voices have been progressively excluded. This demonstrates some of the sensitivity that now surrounds the close UK-Turkish relationship.
Turkey is a NATO ally located in close proximity to one of the world’s most unstable regions. It is central to the management of Europe’s refugee problem, and a necessary partner in the fight against global terrorism. That there is a shared commitment to some level of bilateral cooperation is inevitable and reflects the very nature of diplomacy. Turkey joined the EU’s Customs Union in 1996, is a major emergent economy, and a country with which the UK would like to enhance its trade, particularly in the post-Brexit era -Turkey is one of 14 markets with which the UK has set up a working group with an eye on post-Brexit trade. Although bilateral UK-Turkey trade has increased significantly in recent years, and the UK is Turkey’s second biggest export market (after Germany) and second biggest foreign investor, the UK is way down the list of exporters to Turkey. German exports to Turkey are valued at around four times those of the UK, while Italy, France and Spain also enjoy greater success than the UK in penetrating the Turkish market. However, Turkey’s membership of the Customs Union, and the UK’s presumed imminent departure from it, will inhibit future trade growth – unless, of course, Turkey too exits from the Customs Union, a thought that has been aired from time to time in Turkey. Perhaps the UK would like to nudge Ankara in that direction? In any case, if post-Brexit Britain is to improve its trade prospects, with Turkey or any other trade partner, it needs to produce goods and services that others wish to buy. There is a limit to what governments can do in this regard.
Trade in defence equipment is more susceptible to governmental influence, however, and there is little doubt that it constituted a centrepiece of Erdogan’s UK visit. The UK has sold around $1 billion worth of armaments to Turkey since the failed 2016 coup, including a major BAE Systems deal that will contribute to Turkey’s ambition to build its own fighter jet. During the London visit, the UK lobbied intensely for Rolls Royce to win the engine contract for the fighter. Arms sales rarely come without ethical issues attached, and the British government has conceded that it cannot guarantee that British-supplied arms have not or will not be used in Turkish operations such as those in Afrin, Iraq or in its own Kurdish-populated southeast. The criticism that this arms trade provoked in the UK was intensified by Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to question President Erdogan’s depiction of so many of his perceived political adversaries as ‘terrorists’, and by her own reference – while sharing a platform with the Turkish president – to ‘Kurdish terrorists’. This not only failed to distinguish ordinary Kurds from the PKK, but also overlooked the fact that most of the Kurds that have been imprisoned in Turkey, silenced, or are exiled (many in the UK) are not ‘terrorists’ in any meaningful sense at all but elected national and local politicians, journalists, intellectuals, human rights lawyers, businessmen, bureaucrats and the like.
It wasn’t surprising that Erdogan described the UK as a ‘true friend’ and a ‘strategic partner’ of Turkey. Alan Duncan, then the UK’s Minister for Europe, was the first western politician to visit Turkey in the wake of the failed July 2016 coup, when he offered a degree support and sympathy with the Turkish government and people that has never truly been matched by other European governments. Theresa May’s January 2017 visit was the first post-coup visit by any western leader. The UK has also demonstrated a greater tolerance than has Washington or Berlin of Ankara’s claim that the coup attempt was Gulenist in inspiration, and it has been far less critical – indeed, it has been almost entirely silent about – the fierce post-coup crackdown and human rights abuses in Turkey. This contrasts sharply with the reaction across much of the rest of Europe, where criticism of Erdogan’s autocratic behaviour has been fierce. Erdogan’s visit to London also coincided with a rising tide of American anger with Turkey. This animosity has been driven by a number of factors – the holding of the American pastor Andrew Brunson as ‘hostage’ on absurdly trumped-up charges, Turkey’s planned purchase of S-400 air defence missiles from Russia and its improving relationship with Moscow, its murky relationship with Islamist groups in Syria, the conduct of Erdogan’s bodyguards during his 2017 trip to Washington, and the anti-western and stridently Islamist rhetoric that was spilling out from Ankara on an almost daily basis. This culminated in a Congressional attempt to block the sale of F-35 fighter jets to Turkey. In short, the UK’s overt cultivation of Erdogan’s government has made it something of an outrider among Turkey’s western partners.
There are considerable risks for the UK in its stance towards Erdogan’s Turkey. A dramatic decline in the value of the Turkish lira provided an unsettling backdrop to Erdogan’s visit and served as a reminder of the indebtedness, current account deficit and inflationary pressures that threaten the Turkish economy. Erdogan’s unorthodox approach to economic management, involving his own micromanagement and opposition to interest rate rises, startled rather than attracted the business interests that the UK government had assembled. The reputed scale of corruption can hardly have helped either. There is too the prospect that forthcoming presidential and parliamentary elections in Turkey could put at risk the integrity, efficacy or even the very fact of Erdogan’s future leadership of the country. Alternatively, electoral success will surely intensify his authoritarian presidentialism. The deepened polarisation that either of these scenarios would produce could put the UK at odds with the generally more secular, liberal, or pro-Kurdish half of Turkey’s population that is unhappy with his rule. In any case there are bound to be tensions when it becomes clear that UK law will inhibit the extradition to Turkey of those academics, journalists, intellectuals, Gulenist businessmen and Kurdish activists that have sought refuge from Erdogan in the UK.
On the other hand, it has to be said that human rights considerations play little part in the foreign policy considerations of the current British government. They barely featured during May’s visit to China in early 2018, for example, while Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was unashamedly and uncritically lionised as a reformer and moderniser during his March 2018 UK visit. In London, now perhaps more than ever, trade considerations trump political values. The chaotic and divisive Brexit negotiations have introduced something sad and desperate to the tone and content of British foreign policy. London is grappling with a self-inflicted wound that it is too proud or too delusional to admit to. It is engaged in a panicked search for alternative trade partners, and a no less panicked endeavour to convince itself that they can be found. Erdogan’s Turkey is no less isolated, and his country is similarly too jingoistic to recognise its own vulnerability and loneliness. With an election looming, Erdogan must have hoped that demonstrations of the UK’s friendship and photographs of tea with the Queen would boost his domestic fortunes. But Turkey might soon prove to be an embarrassing ally and disappointing trade partner for the UK, while the UK in turn might prove too economically uninteresting and diplomatically isolated to offer much beyond some reputational rescue to a troubled Turkish leadership.