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Turkey and the UK: A partnership renewed for our times

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Theresa May, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

Theresa May’s whirlwind visit to Ankara produced new deals, warm words of solidarity and careful treading around Turkish domestic issues

After this week, few could doubt Turkey is a country that Britain wants to do business with.

The fact that Prime Minister Theresa May jetted directly from the United States – where she was the first world leader to meet the new President Donald Trump – to Turkey, becoming the first world leader to visit since last July’s coup attempt, was intended to be an immensely flattering gesture.

Britain is on a public relations offensive with Turkey, a country that world leaders will try to charm by telling everyone how important it is.

“Let us together renew our efforts to fulfil Ataturk’s vision of peace at home and peace in the world,” Mrs May wrote in the mausoleum guestbook for Turkey’s founding father.

Later, after meeting her Turkish counterpart Binali Yıldırım, she paid tribute to Turkey for hosting three million refugees fleeing the Syrian civil war.

She also used the phrase: “Turkey sits on the frontline of some of the most difficult and serious challenges we face.”

Britain’s message is clear: Turkey is wise, Turkey is generous, Turkey is important and Britain wants to keep Turkey close.

And so Mrs May announced a plethora of new deals and initiatives during her visit.

She said the two countries needed to work even closer together in such fields as intelligence sharing to fight terrorism.

Turkey’s struggle with that “T” word – terrorism – is multifaceted. In the last year-and-a-half hundreds of people have died in the country as a result of attacks by Kurdish militants, the so-called Islamic State (IS) and extreme left-wing groups like the DHKP-C. The Turkish government describes the network of self-exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen as another such group, but it has yet to convince leaders like Theresa May to repeat the “t” word here.

Britain does list the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the DHKP-C as proscribed terrorist organisations but Mrs May’s focus remains defeating IS. That group has not successfully launched an attack on British soil – although, security officials say, they have tried many times.

Using an interesting choice of words, Mrs May said it was crucial to “help to protect” the 1.7 million British tourists who visit Turkey each year – numbers that fell sharply in 2016.

And the British Prime Minister announced a defence deal surrounding Turkey’s prized patriotic project, the domestic fighter jet. It would appear Britain’s BAE systems will now collaborate with TAI, the Turkish aerospace group, in the project’s pre-design phase.

Cyprus was mentioned, too. Both Turkey and the UK – as guarantor nations for the island – agreed they were committed to a solution as quickly as possible.

For Turkey, the visit was a much-needed boost of confidence and support at a time of domestic turmoil.

For Britain, a country that is preparing for a future outside the European Union, this was a successful effort to retain bonds with another medium-sized country on the fringes of Europe.

But there was little mention by Mrs May about Turkey’s proposed executive presidency system, which would give Recep Tayyip Erdoğan vast and sweeping new powers, except for a short public remark expressing the hope that Turkey sustains the democracy it fought for in last year’s coup by “maintaining the rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations”.

Clearly, Britain’s priorities lie elsewhere.


Theresa May on:

Syria: “we are working together to fight Daesh and create the conditions for peace, the challenge of mass migration … I pay tribute to Turkey’s generosity in hosting more than 3 million refugees from surrounding countries, and … the United Kingdom is committed to doing all it can to help.”

Cyprus: “we are both committed to playing our full part in an effort to secure an early agreement.”

The new fighter jet deal: “This is more than a trade deal – it is the start of a deep defence partnership that will contribute to our overall security.”

Terrorism and tourism: “We should never forget that in the last 18 months, over 1,500 Turkish civilians and security personnel have been killed by terrorist attacks. Crucially [our partnership] will also help to protect the 1.7 million British tourists who travel to Turkey from the UK every year.”

UK-Turkish cooperation: “We are today announcing a new and unique government-to-government agreement between Turkey and the United Kingdom that sets a new framework for co-operation and dialogue between our governments including the defence ministries and air forces.

“And we have also agreed to establish a trade working group to explore ways in which we can improve Turkish-UK trade.”

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