Tea with the Queen is a pretty good photo op, especially if you are an autocratic president in the midst of a tough race for re-election.
Such is the case for Turkey’s incumbent Recep Tayyip Erdogan who arrived to London on Sunday (13 May) for a three-day visit.
Erdogan’s stay in the UK comes after some setbacks in his election campaign.
Last week, Erdogan handed an effective slogan to his opponents after he carelessly commented that if the public wants him to step aside all they need to do say “enough”.
Hours later over one million Turks tweeted the hashtag #Tamam, the Turkish word for “enough”.
Meanwhile, the Turkish lira continues to tumble and the country’s overall economic outlook is precarious.
Erdogan’s hopes of holding campaign rallies in European capitals were pre-emptively nixed by European nations, unwilling to risk another confrontation with Erdogan.
Bosnia was the only European country which Erdogan managed to schedule a campaign visit.
This is why British Prime Minister Theresa May’s red-carpet treatment is such a boost to Erdogan. And Britain is hoping that this will translate into profit.
May boosting Erdogan
As well as meeting government ministers, Erdogan will address a symposium of British and Turkish business leaders.
Turkey is Britain’s 11th largest trading partner while the UK is Turkey’s 10th. In 2016, the value of bilateral trade stood at around $17bn (€14.2bn) with both countries expressing intensions to increase this figure to beyond the $20bn mark. And there is every reason to expect that this target will be met.
Although leaving the EU, the UK was always an advocate of Turkish accession. London also found its way into Erdogan’s good books for being one of the first countries to express solidarity after the July 2016 attempted coup which the Turkish government blames on the Gulen movement, followers of the US based preacher Fetullah Gulen.
Since then there has been a flurry of ministerial visits to London and Ankara, including British foreign minister Boris Johnson who, despite having once penned a derogatory poem about Erdogan, called for a “jumbo” post Brexit free-trade deal with Turkey.
Prime minister May’s visit to Erdogan’s presidential palace in January 2017 coincided with the signing of a £100m (€113m) contract for BAE Systems to develop a new Turkish fighter jet, the start of a “strategic partnership”.
Turkey drifting away from the West
But “strategic partnership” is a misnomer. There is nothing strategic about bilateral relations. Sure, both are NATO members, but Turkey has drifted away from the West.
Not only has it agreed to purchase the Russian S400 Surface to air missile system, but after double agent Sergai Skripal and his daughter were poisoned by a chemical nerve agent in Salisbury, which also infecting members of the public, Turkey didn’t join the UK’s allies in expelling Russian spies.
Ankara’s condemnation was barely a whisper.
“Strategic partnership” is a fancy way to emphasise the importance of the trade relationship. Downing Street is hoping that the BAE Systems deal is just the first of many lucrative contracts not only in the arms industry, but also in the pharmaceutical, chemical, services and technology sectors.
London considers markets such as Turkey as vital for the maintenance of its Global Britain brand during the Brexit process.
No strong Gulenist presence
Unlike Turkey’s other European trading partners such as Germany, Sweden and Netherlands, the UK does not have a strong and overtly active Gulenist presence, which is Ankara’s public enemy number one.
Nor is the UK a central hub for the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state for three decades.
Sure, you might find the odd demonstration outside downing street with a PKK flag or a restaurant in Hackney, a London neighbourhood with vibrant Turkish and Kurdish communities, a portrait of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, but this hardly compares to the large pro-PKK rallies that have taken place in some European cities.
Also, the UK has deliberately looked away from Turkish human rights violations and the erosion of democracy.
London has barely battered 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.
Last year, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee recommended that Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office designate Turkey a Human Rights Priority Country upon the publication of the FCO’s Human Rights and Democracy Report. However, when the report was published, Turkey did not appear.
Sure, there will be some demonstrations against Erdogan during his visit to the UK, but they will be small and not see daylight in Turkey’s press.
Instead, images of Erdogan being greeted by the Queen will be beamed to Turkish households, a sure boost for Erdogan’s bid to make his way back to his own Presidential palace in Ankara after next month’s elections.
Dr Simon A. Waldman is Mercator-IPC fellow at the Istanbul Policy Center and a visiting research fellow at King’s College London. He is the co-author of the recently published, The New Turkey and Its Discontents.