While Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was visiting the United Kingdom last week, I wrote a piece about UK-Turkish relations which was published by the EU Observer and can be found here. Some of you might be aware that I am currently working on a research project about UK-Turkish relations at the Istanbul Policy Center. My main thinking about the subject will be available in a full policy report in a couple of months, but let me take this occasion to make a few brief comments about President Erdogan’s UK visit.
In my view UK-Turkish relations are entering a golden age. Bilateral trade is flowing at its highest level, ministers are regularly meeting and goodwill has never been higher. So, it was pretty obvious that Downing Street would give President Erdogan the red-carpet treatment including the pleasure of meeting Her Royal Majesty the Queen.
Indeed, it was this audience with Britain’s hereditary sovereign which was the most controversial aspect of President Erdogan’s visit. It should be remembered that as soon as Erdogan called snap elections other European nations ruled out the possibility of ministerial visits for campaign purposes, leaving only Bosnia as part of Erdogan’s international campaigning.
But President Erdogan’s visit to London was planned well before the snap elections were announced. However, it was not planned as a state visit, meaning that London was not obliged to stick the baked bean (that’s cockney for Queen) before the Turkish head of state. However, Lizzy was not busy and so London was able to provide Erdogan a great photo op while he is fights what is increasingly becoming a tough presidential and parliamentary election race next month.
But it didn’t quite work out so smoothly, at least not for Erdogan. The footage of the meeting between Erdogan and the Queen was not heavily circulated by the Turkish press, even pro-government outlets. Perhaps this was because Erdogan appeared to be making a very low bow before the Queen in the photograph? Obviously, one is supposed to make a humble nod of the head before blue blood, but it remains the case that at 1.85 (6ft 1) Erdogan towers over Elizabeth II whose height stands at a regal 1.63 (5ft 4). In other words, in order to make eye contact and shake the hand of the head of the House of Windsor, President Erdogan had little choice but to make a deeper bow than what looked good.
A slightly different case with the Turkish first lady Emine who was accompanying her husband in his royal visit. Looking rather overwhelmed by the pomp and circumstance of the ceremony, Emine had the advantage of being about the same height as her regnant host, and their handshake looked like one between equals. This was the photo the Turkish press chose to publicise more widely.
Also, Erdogan made a disastrous interview with Bloomberg while in London, stating that he would tighten his grip on the economy including ensuring that interest rates remain low. This was the opposite of what investors wanted to hear and contributed to the Lira plunging against all major currencies including the dollar, euro and pound sterling. The visit can hardly be described as a boon before the elections.
This aside, there are questions that need to be raised about this visit. Last year the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee released a report on the UK’s relations with Turkey which stressed the importance of not just strengthen its relationship with the ruling governing party but all segments of Turkish society. Absolutely right. But upgrading the nature of Erdogan’s visit to London hardly meets this goal, especially without the UK making some kind of gesture towards the opposition or fostering stronger ties with Turkish civil society. The question still looms, how can Britain forge ties with all segments of Turkish society without angering the governing party and President? For real long-term durability in bilateral relations, Britain has to diversify the nature of its engagement with Turkey.
However, from Turkey’s perspective, this recent visit affirmed what I have thought all along - in Britain, Erdogan and the AKP has found a perfect ally. Although Britain’s international standing has diminished, it still remains a significant medium international power that is able to punch slightly above its weight. Turkey’s ties with the UK are unlike that of, say, Germany. British leaders do not go on about human rights, the state of democracy or the rule of law. They mention it a little bit of course, but they in no way make political relations and economic engagement contingent on such matters. Also, as a supporter of Turkey’s EU accession and a country that has been the most sympathetic towards the ruling government after the attempted 2016 coup, Britain has earned Erdogan’s favour. Last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May even used the term “Kurdish Terrorism”. You don't hear that too often from European leaders.
The UK is eager to shake hands and make deals whether that be in the defence, services and pharmaceutical sectors or new emerging industries. London's hope is that during the period of Brexit, UK-Turkish relations can stand as an example of beneficial trade and diplomatic relations with other countries outside of the EU and thus maintain the Global Britain brand.
Much more to come about this subject in a couple of months when my report is released.
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