In rolling out the red carpet this week for Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s increasingly autocratic president, the UK government sent a strong message about British foreign policy in the age of Brexit. It is to be a ruthlessly pragmatic search for friends and partners in trade, investment, defence and security.
Speaking next to Mr Erdogan at 10 Downing Street on Tuesday, Prime Minister Theresa May offered the mildest of reproofs for the human rights crackdown in Turkey since the failed coup of July 2016. Mrs May said it was right that the coup plotters should be “brought to justice”. Meanwhile, Turkey should “not lose sight of the values it is seeking to defend”.
In the context of Brexit, the point to grasp is that London now offers a large measure of understanding for friendly governments that treat the rule of law in a high-handed manner. For nothing must obstruct the foreign policy overhaul deemed necessary to contain the damage to the UK’s global influence arising from its self-ejection from the EU.
Three countries have received special attention from Mrs May’s government since the UK’s vote to leave the EU: Poland under the conservative nationalist Jaroslaw Kaczynski, Hungary under self-styled champion of “illiberal democracy” Viktor Orban, and Turkey under Mr Erdogan.
The UK is wooing this trio at a time when each has strained relations with the EU and the major western European governments. Warsaw, Budapest and Ankara appreciate the absence of moral posturing in London’s refurbished foreign policy.
In Turkey’s case, what benefits will accrue to the UK from currying favour with Mr Erdogan? Commenting on the erosion of civil rights in Turkey, Simon Waldman, a visiting research fellow at King’s College London, writes: “London has barely batted an eyelid about the onslaught against the press or the post-coup purges that have left tens of thousands imprisoned and hundreds of thousands jobless.”
A conversation I had last year with Omer Celik, Turkey’s EU affairs minister, left me in no doubt that the UK’s speedy condemnation of the coup attempt and its enthusiasm for defence co-operation met approval in Ankara.
The warmth in UK-Turkish relations draws strength from the fact that, while Britain is leaving the EU, Turkey has never looked less like gaining admission. Each has an outsider status that will encourage shared perspectives on their roles in Europe.
As Sinan UIgen observes in a policy paper for the Brookings Institution, the UK and Turkey may find it valuable to develop common positions on trade and security relations with the EU.
However, Turkey is in a customs union with the EU. It covers most goods, though not services and agricultural products. This almost certainly rules out a full-blown UK-Turkish free trade accord.
The UK and Turkey do far more trade with the EU than with each other. In this authoritative analysis, the FT’s Valentina Romei shows that Turkey accounts for about 1 per cent of the UK’s goods and services exports and a slightly higher proportion of its imports.
But diplomacy consists of more than trade. The UK House of Commons foreign affairs committee was surely right last year when it cautioned: “The relationship that the [government] establishes with Turkey must not just be with . . . Erdogan . . . Indeed, it must not just be with the state apparatus . . . The UK should support programmes that seek engagement with the Turkish people.”
A special arrangement for Northern Ireland? (LSE Brexit blog)
Brexit: 10 myths about the ‘Norway model’ debunked (UK in a Changing Europe)
Typical fines for failing to demonstrate effective money-laundering checks are only in the order of £1,000.