Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, began a three-day state visit to the UK on Sunday amid claims that Theresa May was disowning Britain’s respect for human rights in pursuit of a post-Brexit trade deal with Ankara.
On his arrival in the UK, Erdoğan, who is in the midst of a high-stakes domestic election campaign, insisted that Anglo-Turkish relations were going from strength to strength and would develop even more after Brexit.
Human rights campaigners, opposition politicians and exiled Turkish businessmen have called on Britain to denounce the Turkish government’s systematic arrest of journalists, opposition politicians and human rights campaigners in an anti-terrorist dragnet.
Britain is eager to show that a post-Brexit “global Britain” will be a close ally of Turkey, a Nato partner, and has taken a strategic bet on Erdoğan’s survival ever since the failed military coup in July 2016 designed to dislodge him from power. The UK was the first to send a minister to Turkey in solidarity with Erdoğan, an act of friendship not forgotten in Ankara.
Erdoğan arrived at RAF Brize Norton on Sunday lunchtime. His state visit is expected to include a joint press conference with May, a speech at the prestigious thinktank Chatham House, and a meeting with the Queen at Buckingham Palace.
Speaking in Reading at the annual Turkish-British Tatlıdil Forum on Sunday, he said Turkey and the UK were “fighting shoulder to shoulder as responsible nations to defeat terrorism”, adding: “Our partnership in the defence industry is the best example of what we can achieve together.” He said: “We want to continue our economic relations as the governments of Turkey and the United Kingdom without interruptions after Brexit.” The aim, he said, is to boost trade from $16bn (£11.8bn) to $20bn (£14.7bn) a year.
The UK is especially eager to make progress on a BAE Systems deal to provide technology for the first phase of development of a Turkish-made fighter jet. The EU minister Ömer Çelik also warned that the EU would be much weaker as a result of the UK leaving, and held out the hope of framing a new trade deal with the UK.
Britain’s enthusiasm for closer economic ties is balanced by unease at the way Turkey is seeking to weaken Kurdish fighters operating in northern Syria. Britain argues that the western-backed Syrian Kurds should not necessarily be seen as the same as Kurds fighting for independence inside Turkey. The UK is also trying to prevent Turkey’s burgeoning political ties with Russia building into a military relationship.
The visit had been arranged prior to Erdoğan’s decision to bring forward the date of presidential elections by a year to 24 June, and the tour runs the risk of being used as a backdrop to his election campaign. Many senior Turkish politicians, by contrast, have been banned from campaigning in other other European countries such as Germany and the Netherlands.
Erdoğan won a referendum last year that will give the next elected president unprecedented personal powers, as part of a switch from a parliamentary to presidential system of government.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Vince Cable, denounced the visit. “The UK has a strong, proud history of democracy and human rights, but our reputation on the world stage is in danger of being eroded by this Conservative government’s desire to woo world leaders like [Donald] Trump and Erdoğan,” he said. “May’s administration appears to have substituted diplomacy for sycophancy in its pursuit of Brexit.”
“By permitting a state visit and audience with the Queen, May and Boris Johnson are essentially rolling out the red carpet for a man with a disregard for human rights, who is responsible for alarming oppression and violence.”
In the latest crackdown on free speech, Turkish ministers have warned Twitter not to allow the use of hashtags that are critical of the president. Last week, a hashtag meaning “enough” went viral after Erdoğan said he would quit if the Turkish people said they had had enough of his leadership.
In a sign of how the bloody coup has upended Turkish politics, Hamdi Akin Ipek, the chair of a London-based company called Koza and once one of Turkey’s richest businessmen, has written to May to complain about Erdoğan’s abuse of human rights. Now exiled in London, Ipek said newspapers and broadcast channels he owned were closed by the state in 2015 in what he says is a series of steps to eliminate not just his business, but all internal opposition.
The Turkish government claims Ipek is an ally of the exiled cleric Fethullah Gülen, who it says ran a secret network inside Turkey to mount a coup to overthrown the elected government.
Ipek said: “A human rights crisis has been created in Turkey,” which he says “ought to bring shame on the community of civilised nations”. Ipek said his brother “has been in jail for two years without hope of access to justice, along with hundreds of other businessmen, judges, civil servants and journalists who are being kept in custody for no other reason than the fact they are perceived as enemies”.
Ipek urged May to use Erdoğan’s visit to call for an end to the unacceptable human rights abuses, the release of those imprisoned without evidence of any crime, and an end to the state of emergency. All civil society was being abolished, he said.
He added that some of his staff who relocated to London feared for the safety of their families in Turkey.
- This article was amended on 13 May 2018 to correct the name of the Chairman of the company Koza. The chairman is Hamdi Akin Ipek.