“Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU” claimed posters plastered all around the UK and placed on the side of buses and on the most read pages of newspapers. In the run-up to the Brexit referendum, those who believed the UK should leave the European Union played Turkey as a trump card, argued that millions of Turks would flood into the UK in the space of a few years and said, “Vote Brexit and take back control.”
The UK decided to leave the European Union in the referendum held in June 2016. It is open to debate how much influence a potential wave of migration from Turkey had on this decision. But one thing is for sure: A clear rapprochement has been taking place in UK-Turkey relations since the Brexit vote. Even though the most prominent among those who spread the “The Turks are coming!” fear today form part of the British cabinet.
President Tayyip Erdoğan will visit Queen Elizabeth II. and have talks with Prime Minister Theresa May while in the UK this week on a three-day official visit. May has been under pressure for some time. There are those who have started to raise their voices, asking why this visit is being made with six weeks left before critical elections that will determine Turkey’s fate. Those who voice concerns that the election will held under a state of emergency and under unfair and unequal conditions and who recall that one of the presidential candidates is behind bars ask, “Why was this visit not postponed?” For the time being, London simply makes do with replying, “The visit was planned before the early election was announced.”
If you look at the imputations of “British game” or labels of “British agent” constantly touted by the pro-government press in Turkey, you would come away with a very different idea. Actually, things are a little different. London is currently Ankara’s closest friend in Europe. The two countries have drawn closer not only in relation to the Brexit vote, but following the stance adopted by the UK in the 15 July coup attempt. It will be recalled that, with Ankara reproaching European countries saying, “Why have you not come out in condemnation of the coupists? Why did you not stand by the government?” London was one of the first countries to condemn the coup attempt and a high-ranking government official made a support visit to Ankara within a few days. The British government preferred to remain silent in the process following the coup attempt in which hundreds of thousands of people were expelled from their posts and detained and journalists were put on trial.
The British Ambassador made an assessment for the BBC prior to the visit. He said, “Turkey is a very important country for us. But, this does not mean that we do not talk to our friends about matters that concern us.” He stated that concerns over such matters as the supremacy of the law and freedom of press and expression are forwarded to Ankara behind closed doors. But, human rights organisations do not consider this to be adequate. For example, the Human Rights Monitoring Organisation HRW is asking May to openly call on Erdoğan to release detained politicians, journalists and activists. It says, “It's time for May to show some backbone and press Erdogan to end these abuses.” Organisations like Reporters Without Borders and PEN are calling for a demonstration in front of Turkey’s embassy building in London in protest against President Erdoğan.
However, such matters are not expected to be high on May’s agenda. Turkey is a country of key importance due to its border of more than 900 kilometres with Syria in terms both of halting the flow of refugees and fighting terrorism. Of course, there is also a trade dimension to the affair. Trade between the two countries is worth some 16 million dollars. London also hopes the purchase of Rolls-Royce engines will be supplemented to the 100 million dollar TFX warplane purchase agreement signed with Turkey last year. In other words, it would appear that yet again foreign policy and trade are to prevail over matters of principle such as human rights and press freedom in international relations.