Turkey’s London envoy Abdurrahman Bilgiç talks to Haber about Brexit, the coup, tourism and new business opportunities
Turkey has praised Britain’s “exceptionally valuable” support in the immediate aftermath of last July’s attempt to topple the Ankara government in a military coup.
The country’s ambassador in London, Abdurrahman Bilgiç, said the UK’s decision to dispatch Europe minister Alan Duncan on a whistle-stop visit just days after the failed overthrow was vital for Turkey’s recovery.
Mr Bilgiç, who has been ambassador to London since July 2014, made the remarks in a wide-ranging interview to mark the launch of the Haber’s English section.
In response to this newspaper’s questions he:
- spoke of his determination to attract British tourists back to Turkey;
- said he was “saddened, disappointed and disturbed” by the anti-Turkish tone of last year’s Brexit referendum;
- insisted he was determined to introduce more Turkish brands to the streets of the UK.
British-Turkish ‘strategic partnership’
“The UK was the first European country to voice its strong and clear support for the democratic institutions in Turkey,” Mr Bilgiç told Haber in a wide-ranging interview.
“It was the first European country to send a high-level envoy to Turkey to offer condolences. This support has been exceptionally valuable for Turkey.”
Duncan visited Ankara on 21 July last year, less than a week after the coup attempt. Mr Bilgiç said this and Theresa May’s own visit last month was a sign of how well the two countries understood each other.
“As strategic partners, our relations go well beyond being frank and friendly. We cooperate on a wide range of issues, from defence and security to trade,” he said, adding: “We are adapting our relations to the changing conditions on the ground.”
Brexit campaign disappointment
Mr Bilgiç said his country watched the anti-Turkish messages that dominated last year’s Brexit referendum campaign “in silent mode” in an attempt not to be drawn into the debate.
Pro-leave campaign posters claimed – falsely – that a vote to remain in the EU would entitle 75 million Turkish citizens to immediately travel to the UK. Meanwhile remain campaigners, including then-Prime Minister David Cameron, said Turkey’s EU membership talks would last until the year 3000.
“We were saddened, disappointed and disturbed with references to Turkey during the Brexit campaign,” Mr Bilgiç said.
“They were mostly based on false pretence and prejudice. Despite the fact that fear-mongering rhetoric was prevalent in the campaign period, Brexiters directly targeted Turkey and Turkish people with allegations and myths.
“Given the UK’s traditional strong support for Turkey’s EU membership, we were also surprised to hear unrealistic and unacceptable timeframes in relation to this strategic objective.”
But he added other nations and peoples saw similar treatment during the campaign, including anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic incidents, and that there was a need to target all forms of extremism.
We cannot let terrorists win
Fighting extremism was also the path to restoring Turkey’s tourism trade, the ambassador said.
The number of British visitors to the UK fell sharply in 2016 in response to mounting terror attacks and the summer coup attempt.
“One of the main goals of terrorists is to spread fear into societies, forcing people to change their preferences and daily routines. If we do not want the terrorists to gain ground, it is important to sustain our way of life,” he said.
“We should not and cannot let them win.”
More Turkish life in the UK
With Turkish brands and business becoming increasingly recognisable in the UK, Mr Bilgiç said this was thanks to the Turkish government’s business-friendly attitude. A new accreditation system – TURQUALITY – has helped businesses become more courageous in expanding to other markets.
“We are all very glad to enjoy a simit on Oxford Street, have a Turkish coffee or sahlep during cold days at Piccadilly Circus, or see Turkish electronic appliances in stores,” the ambassador said.
What he told us
Bilgiç on UK-Turkey relations
“While Turkey is dealing with the threats arising from terrorist organizations like FETÖ, PKK, DEASH and DHKP-C, the UK is trying to redefine its relations with the EU and its international partners following the Brexit vote.
“Nonetheless, our two countries understand each other’s dynamics and conditions well, and our bilateral cooperation is resilient enough to withstand the challenges. Moreover, despite the fact that Turkey and the UK are going through exceptional times, our relations are vibrant and robust.
“As strategic partners, our relations go well beyond being frank and friendly. We cooperate on a wide range of issues, from defence and security to trade. During Prime Minister May’s visit, the two countries agreed on deepening their cooperation in the field of defence industry and also agreed to step up work on aviation security.
“Our leaders also announced the formation of a trade working group for a comprehensive review our economic relations with a post-Brexit vision. Thus, we are adapting our relations to the changing conditions on the ground.”
Bilgiç on Tourism safety
“Terrorism is not a specific threat that is directed to a specific nation. Turkey is not the only country that is facing such a menace. We have witnessed terrorist attacks in other European cities, such as Paris, Berlin and Brussels. In the past, London was also the scene of terrorist attacks.
“One of the main goals of terrorists is to spread fear into societies, forcing people to change their preferences and daily routines. If we do not want the terrorists to gain ground, it is important to sustain our way of life. We should not and cannot let them win.
“Turkey remains a popular destination for the British tourists. Beyond that, there are quite a few British nationals who have acquired property in Turkey. The Turkish Ministry of Tourism and Culture has adopted several measures to maintain a high number of tourists visiting Turkey.
“Tourists from all nationalities can safely enjoy their holidays in Turkey.”
Bilgiç on the Brexit campaign
“We were saddened, disappointed and disturbed with references to Turkey during the Brexit campaign. They were mostly based on false pretence and prejudice. Despite the fact that fear-mongering rhetoric was prevalent in the campaign period, Brexiters directly targeted Turkey and Turkish people with allegations and myths.
“Given the UK’s traditional strong support for Turkey’s EU membership, we were also surprised to hear unrealistic and unacceptable timeframes in relation to this strategic objective.
“Albeit in silent mode, we followed these discussions closely. We worked hard so as not to drawn into this heated and sensitive topic. As a matter of fact, Turkey and Turkish people were not the only ones subjected to such unfair treatment. Similar references were made for other nations and peoples as well during the referendum campaign.
“What is more worrying is that this anti-rhetoric seems to have left a notorious legacy as recent figures indicate an increase in crimes related to racism, hate speech, Islamophobia and antisemitism.”
Bilgiç on Turkish business in the UK
“Having an export-led economy, Turkey has maintained a business-friendly attitude to support the private sector. The Government introduced a unique brand accreditation system, namely TURQUALITY®, which encompasses all phases of building a successful global brand. [This allows] Turkish brands to become more courageous to expand to other markets, contributing to the image and value of Turkish exports.
“The brands you have mentioned – Kahve Dünyası and Doğtas – are among the successful ones. Turkish products are gaining more brand awareness in the UK. We are all very glad to enjoy a simit on Oxford Street, have a Turkish coffee or sahlep during cold days at Piccadilly Circus, or see Turkish electronic appliances in stores.
“By their own nature, incentives depend on medium to long-term strategies rather than annual performances. The Government has always been in close contact with businesses through exporters’ associations and discuss their needs in order to implement best possible policies.”