Tim Lowell
Jun 24 2018

Britain extends royal welcome for much-needed Turkey - Ahval series "Business as usual" (2)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has not made himself many friends in Europe in recent years. But he has maintained consistently good relations with Britain. He was even granted an audience with Queen Elizabeth on Tuesday, an important pseudo-endorsement during a hard-fought election campaign.

The reason for Erdoğan’s visit to Britain was to attend the annual Tatlı Dil (Sweet Talk) Forum, a bilateral economic and geopolitical talking shop that was established by his predecessor, Abdullah Gül, together with Britain’s former foreign minister, Jack Straw.

Tatlı Dil was far from the greatest of the two surprisingly close pals’ joint achievements, however. It is deeply unlikely that without either Straw’s talent for managing European public opinion or Gül’s talent for reining in Erdoğan’s misgivings that Turkey would have succeeded in beginning EU accession talks back in 2005.

Thus there is a certain joyful irony in the fact that the Tatlı Dil Forum’s agenda this year is almost entirely focused on the subject of Britain’s exit from the European Union, which gives us one clear clue about why the country is clinging so closely to its large, non-EU counterpart Turkey: the less streamlined the economic exit from European institutions, the more desperately Britain will need Turkey as a market.

“In the context of Brexit, we are currently courting as many non-EU nations as we can for potential trade deals, and so are less fussy than ever about the abuses perpetrated by governments like that of Turkey,” Alexander Christie-Miller, a journalist who is currently writing a book on the changing face of Istanbul, told Ahval.

“While the UK's Turkish diaspora population is significantly more anti-Erdoğan than those of most other European countries, the deterioration of democracy in Turkey has received far less public attention here than in Germany,” he said.

While Britain is Turkey’s second-biggest export market after Germany, Turkey was only 19th on the list of Britain’s biggest markets in 2016 – although its strong growth means that it jumped up three places over the previous year.

London has also become a favourite place for Turkish-born businesspeople to relocate either in times of trouble or in hopes of developing overseas markets. Those who still have large-scale business concerns in Turkey have a distinct interest in the political relationship remaining stable, and many of these magnates will be out in force at Tatlı Dil.

Another reason why the British government has put human rights concerns to one side is that an important segment of the British economy – and the most politically sensitive part – has been given a welcome boost in the wake of various kinds of sanctions from Britain’s European neighbours.

Since the failed coup attempt in 2016, Britain has sold Turkey more than $1 billion worth of weapons, not only securing the jobs of British workers in the sector, but also protecting domestic military production capacity, which remains politically important in an island nation that has punched above its weight for decades.

A more localised concern, and one that will no doubt be aired to Erdoğan during his visit, is ensuring that rumours that the Turkish TF-X fighter jet project could begin sourcing the planes’ engines from cheaper suppliers in Russia rather than from Britain’s Rolls Royce do not come to fruition.

It might seem strange to some that while many states with more substantial Turkish populations are treating Erdoğan as a devil, the diaspora of this clear ally is made up more of secularists and Kurds who despise him.

But at the same time, that situation may ironically give the country more room for manoeuvre – with no threat of a wide audience for Erdoğan’s invective, the British government does not have to deal with his attempts to use the minority as a fifth column and can carry out a more transactional relationship.

At the moment at least, neither the domestic Turkish diaspora nor public opinion of the Erdoğan government in Britain – which is plumbing depths not seen since the military regime of the early 1980s – has managed to derail the relationship on the British side.

Nor have the growing population of exiles from the Erdoğan regime in London.

“What are they going to gain by putting themselves out there? A press interview in Britain is another line on a charge sheet in Turkey,” Michael Sercan Daventry, a Turkish-British journalist who works as the Foreign Editor at the Jewish Chronicle, told Ahval.

One factor looming on the horizon, however, is the attitude of Her Majesty’s Opposition. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and some of his closest allies represent areas of London packed with Turkish, Kurdish, Greek and Cypriot voters, and within that grouping the strongest voice is heard from the expat Kurdish community.

Corbyn has spoken out against Turkey’s cross-border operation in the Syrian district of Afrin and is a patron of the campaigning group Peace in Kurdistan: hardly a recipe for a continuation of close elite ties should his party come to power.

“All you can do is go by what they’ve said,” Daventry said, “and they’ve attacked Turkey on its human rights record and the party has attacked the British government for defence deals with Turkey.”

In contrast, Foreign Minister Boris Johnson, whose great-grandfather was an Ottoman interior minister, endorsed Turkey’s Afrin operation, saying that, “Turkey is right to want to keep its borders secure”. If a photo opportunity and a few harsh words left unsaid are the price of a smoother Brexit and keeping the arms industry happy, it is unsurprising that Britain’s Conservative government was distinctly more sympathetic to the demands of the businesspeople at Tatlı Dil than to those of the less-kempt protestors on the streets of London.

Erdoğan, for his part, was pleased to have been invited by a country he said was "an ally and a strategic partner, but also a real friend".