LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Theresa May will try to foster good ties with Turkey before Brexit at talks with President Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday in spite of human rights protests which threatened to cast a shadow over their meeting.
Erdogan’s visit is part of May’s charm offensive to shore up relations with countries outside the European Union as Britain leaves the bloc and secure at least the promise of future trade deals to bolster her all but stalled Brexit plans.
But rights campaigners say May is turning a blind eye to abuses, in Turkey’s case to the jailing tens of thousands of people after a failed coup in July. Erdogan’s government has said its actions are necessary to combat the threat it faces.
May’s spokesman said Britain would raise human rights with Erdogan at the meeting.
“Our close relationship with Turkey allows us to have frank discussions and you can expect the prime minister to discuss human rights when they speak later today,” the spokesman told reporters.
Just hours before the leaders were due to meet, around 100 protesters waved banners outside May’s Downing Street office depicting Erdogan as a puppet master with blood on his hands. Another said “tamam”, or enough.
About 20 metres away, separated by barriers and a police cordon, a similar number waved Turkish flags in the direction of the anti-Erdogan protesters, chanted and played loud music.
The two sides briefly scuffled.
May secured a commitment last year for Britain and Turkey to work on post-Brexit trade, and Erdogan has said he was keen on securing a deal immediately after Britain leaves the EU.
Her spokesman also said the two sides would discuss ways of deepening cooperation in areas such as counter-terrorism, migration, regional stability and trade.
Ties between the EU and Turkey are increasingly strained, with Brussels saying that Erdogan is leading his country away from the path to membership, while some Turkish officials say they feel betrayed by some the bloc’s leaders.
Reporting by Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky