- Britain has kept quiet on erosion of rights in Turkey
- UK wants to boost trade with Turkey after Brexit
- Close relationship has aided co-operation on counter-terrorism
Boris Johnson was at the Chevening estate in March last year when a plane carrying Mevlut Cavusoglu, the Turkish foreign minster, was turned away from Dutch airspace because of a row about between Turkey and several EU countries about political campaigning in Europe.
Appalled at the plight of his counterpart, the British foreign secretary called him up and invited him over to his grace-and-favour country house for cucumber sandwiches.
Mr Cavusoglu never took up the offer. But the episode illustrates the stark difference between Turkey’s relationship with Britain and its frayed ties to other western countries, which are critical of what they say is the erosion of Turkish democracy under president Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
On Sunday, Mr Erdogan will go one better than high tea at an English country house with a three-day visit to Britain that will include a meeting with the Queen.
His trip comes in the midst of a Turkish parliamentary and presidential election campaign that will be conducted under a state of emergency and with a key presidential candidate in jail.
Turkish democracy campaigners and British opposition politicians are critical of the visit. Catherine West, a Labour MP, said there were “serious concerns about attacks on journalists, civil society and the unresolved relationship with the Kurdish communities in Turkey and Syria”, and the UK should raise “these urgent matters with Mr Erdogan”.
Despite the controversy surrounding the president, British-Turkish relations have grown closer in the past two years, with the two countries brought together by the UK’s vote to leave the EU and the violent coup attempt in Turkey, which took place just three weeks apart.
Turkish officials feel that their allies in mainland Europe and the US were too slow to condemn the putsch, which saw rogue fighter jets bomb the Turkish parliament and soldiers open fire on civilians in the streets. Britain, by contrast, was quick to speak out.
Human rights in Turkey
In the weeks and months that followed the coup, Ankara’s ties with many western allies grew frosty as they criticised a vast purge of Turkish state institutions that targeted not only the alleged coup plotters but also critical journalists and members of the Kurdish opposition.
Britain has chosen to remain largely silent in public on concerns about the erosion of human rights, the rule of law and, more recently, Turkey’s military operation against Kurdish militants in northern Syria. UK officials argue that berating Mr Erdogan in public is counterproductive. They say that they raise concerns behind the scenes instead.
This stance is at odds with the tone of the Brexit campaign, when Leave campaigners were scathing about Turkey. Michael Gove, a prominent EU critic, accused Brussels of “appeasement” towards Ankara, warning that “democratic development has been put into reverse under President Erdogan”. Mr Johnson won a free speech competition for a poem that described Mr Erdogan as a “wankerer” with a predilection for goats.
Trade between Turkey and Britain has been thriving for several years and is currently worth about $16bn. But business executives say that the economic uncertainties of Brexit have led to a new push. Last year, the UK doubled its export finance programme for Turkey to £3.5bn. There are also efforts to increase co-operation on energy, healthcare, manufacturing and defence.
The centrepiece is Britain’s role in helping Mr Erdogan fulfil his dream of building a Turkish-made fighter jet. On a visit to Ankara early last year, Theresa May announced a $100m deal for BAE Systems to provide the technology and expertise for the first phase of development. UK officials hope that Rolls-Royce will also win the contract to built the engines and that a number of smaller companies will also benefit.
Britain has agreed to waive export controls so that Turkey can sell the jet to any country of its choosing — a decision that has raised eyebrows among some Nato allies. “What if Turkey decides to sell these jets to North Korea?” asked one European diplomat, who described the project as “a sign of Theresa May’s desperation to make friends and sign deals after Brexit”.
The British defend the project as vital for creating jobs and sustaining the UK defence industry. “For companies like BAE to remain at the cutting edge of aerospace research, they need big projects,” said a UK trade official. “This is one.”
Working together on counter-terrorism
UK diplomats say that their close relationship with Ankara brings co-operation on intelligence sharing and counter-terrorism, as well as on migration and refugees. It also appears to have secured more favourable treatment for UK nationals in Turkey — in stark contrast to the experience with the experience of jailed German and US detained for months on political charges.
Despite the controversy surrounding Mr Erdogan’s visit, analysts say that UK officials feel they simply cannot afford to turn their back on a country that shares a border with Syria, Iraq and Iran and carries huge strategic importance.
“The British attitude is that, while there are clearly worrying developments in Turkey, engagement is not about an individual,” said Ziya Meral, a researcher at the British Army’s Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research. “It is about the fact that Turkey is too big to walk away from.”