Oliver Wright
May 16 2018

Erdoğan’s UK visit revives old desires

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s visit to Britain this week, where he met both Queen Elizabeth and Prime Minister Teresa May was, in many ways, a boon for both countries.

For Erdoğan, the visit provided an increasingly rare opportunity to burnish his image as a leading international statesman. This is something that should play well with domestic audiences as Turkey heads towards early elections on July 24. It also offered Turkey the chance of cultivating new strategic relationship with Britain that may give Ankara wiggle room as it finds itself increasingly squeezed between the United States and Russia.

For the May it was mostly about business, as Britain tries to define a new place for itself in the post-Brexit world. The current trade volume between Britain and Turkey is around $16 billion. Increasing that figure to something approaching the $20 billion Erdoğan envisages would help plug the gap resulting from Britain’s withdrawal from Europe. Among the most eagerly anticipated of the prospective business deals is a $113 million project that would see British defence industry giant BAE systems develop a new Turkish fighter jet.

In this relationship, there is little room for principle, or even for memory. There was never any chance of the Queen politely saying “enough” as she shared tea with Erdoğan at the palace. Nor has the British government, for all the distaste with which its leaders likely view the Turkish president, done more than pay lip service to alleged commitments to promoting democracy and human rights abroad. Such concerns have been quietly swept aside, trumped as they almost inevitably are, by money. From Britain’s perspective, Erdoğan’s visit has been a matter of holding one’s nose and getting the job done.

Erdoğan, for his part, has called Britain a “strategic partner and ally”, and lauded its swift condemnation of the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey. But in doing so he has had to conveniently overlook the endless conspiracy theories circulating in Turkey’s government-controlled media which paint Britain as a continual meddler in Turkish affairs, not to mention Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s award-winning poem which describes Erdoğan in the most unflattering terms.

Nor is this the first time Britain has reached out pragmatically to Turkey in an hour of need. Centuries ago, another Queen Elizabeth courted the Ottomans following her excommunication by the Pope in 1570. She wrote flattering missives to the sultan extolling the virtues of free trade and signed treaties ― capitulations ― that granted English merchants free commercial access to Ottoman lands.

Her reasons were no less pragmatic than those underpinning the current British government’s willingness to roll out the red carpet for Turkey’s latter-day sultan. With England frozen out of European trade following Elizabeth’s excommunication, it was essential to find fresh markets and create new alliances to undermine Spain, Europe’s dominant power at the time.

It is also of note that, just as today, where Britain’s withdrawal from Europe offered the opportunity to negotiate trade deals on its own terms, Elizabeth I’s excommunication removed the need to comply with papal prohibitions on trading with Muslims, leaving England “free to reap the harvest offered by the infidel market.”

So, should Erdoğan’s visit result in any substantial business deals being struck, it will offer ammunition to Brexiteers who argue that leaving the European Union will allow Britain to boost its standing in the world.

The only people who have reason to be disgruntled by Erdoğan’s trip are those who believe Britain does itself a disservice by hosting such an authoritarian leader. Amongst those raising their voices was the opposition Labour member of parliament David Lammy.

Those who share Lammy’s views can draw some comfort from the echoes of an earlier Elizabethan age. Back then, trade relations between England and the Ottoman Empire proved difficult to sustain, not least because of the vast distances involved. They flourished only up until Elizabeth’s death in 1603. Her successor James I swiftly signed a peace treaty with Spain that ended England’s continental exile and effectively drew a veil over the Anglo-Ottoman romance. European markets were, and still are, so much closer to home.

Today’s rekindling of these historic ties may suffer a similar fate. Erdoğan’s views are notoriously capricious. Those he lauds today are often tomorrow’s whipping boys. And whilst political leaders in Britain may be somewhat more consistent in their opinions, governments change and May’s administration, riven by infighting and lacking even a majority in parliament, could soon fall. It is even possible a successor may re-evaluate Britain’s relationship with Europe and take a different view on the necessity of doing business with people like Erdoğan.