Nick de Bois is the former MP for Enfield North.
Today, Theresa May will visit Ankara to meet with Turkey’s President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The meeting will fall immediately after May’s first formal engagement with Donald Trump in Washington. In times gone by, a trip to the White House might have seemed a little easier than travelling to Turkey, with its strained EU-ties and foreign policy priorities. I’m guessing – but I think the word ‘Trump’ might have changed that, somewhat. Good luck to the civil servants tasked with briefing the PM on the stars and stripes these days.
The visit to Turkey from the USA is no hop over the border for the PM. It is expected that May will travel straight from Washington to Ankara. That’s a journey of over 6,000 miles. It shows this is a deliberate, pre-planned stop off for political reasons not ones of convenience. It is an opportunity for the Prime Minister to further position herself on the global stage. It nicely shows the Europeans how Britain can stand and lead on its own.
The still leaves the question: Why Turkey, of all countries?
In the words of May’s spokesman earlier this week, Turkey is an ‘indispensable partner’ and ‘close ally’ on several issues, including ‘trade, security and defence’. Politicians, and those who surround them, are sometimes accused of using empty words. And more so now than ever, as we face up to a flurry of post-Brexit predictions and the howls of referendum-result deniers north of the border.
On Turkey though – May is spot on. Turkey is all of those things, and more.
The country is – no doubt – going through some extremely challenging times right now. The attempted coup in July of last year, which cost the lives of 241 innocent people, has hit Turkey hard. We’ve seen a response from the Turkish Government that has been understandably robust but also, in part, worryingly extreme. The Government insists that the exiled Imam Fethullah Gülen was behind the coup, and claim to have substantial evidence to back that up. There’s no doubt that May will stress to President Erdogan that there is a fine line between being robust and extreme, and that she will express her support for the fundamental institutions of democratic government and human rights.
That said, May has a duty to listen to the Turkish Government too. The Turks are a longstanding NATO ally who – right now – are helping to stem the migrant crisis by taking in, and housing, literally millions of refugees. They are also hemmed in by running conflicts, notably in Iraq and Syria, and must be part of the solution to ceasing these. And the wounds of recent terror attacks within Turkey’s borders remain open, and sore. The abhorrent New Year’s Eve attack was, unfortunately, not the only one in 2016. We have a duty to support our ally at this time.
Also, our economic interdependence is too often underestimated. Turkey remains a key market for UK exports – approximately 1.4 percent of total UK exports go to Turkey. Roughly 2 percent of the UK’s total imports emanate from Turkey. Over 2500 British companies are operating in Turkey
There are some who have painted Theresa May’s visit as a desperate ploy to realise the possibilities of post-Brexit trade. Nonsense. With Turkey, we are clearly already working very, very, well together. If we can improve on that, and facilitate further co-operation to help the UK – well, why not. It’s beneficial for us, just as it is for the Turks.
So I urge those – particularly those on the Left, who recently fawned the death of tyrant Fidel Castro – who choose to constantly criticise Turkey on the grounds of human rights to think carefully about who they are talking to. Yes there are issues in Turkey right now that need addressing – our PM is well aware of this, and will no doubt breach the subject with President Erdogan.
But in the same way that the Turkish response to the recent coup, and terror attacks, must be proportionate, so must our response to the situation in Turkey. It’s hard to think of a more strategically important country, one that straddles both Europe and the Middle East, for the West right now. Particularly as the Russian bear is hoping to pull Turkey closer to its chest.
This is not a country for us to lecture, rather a partner for us to co-operate with. Nor is it one on the sidelines of decision making, rather it’s at the forefront of the very real global challenges we, as a country, are partly responsible for fixing right now. More importantly, it’s a country that has actively chosen to stretch its own resources, and some would say compromise its own security, by housing millions of refugees.
Let’s not make an enemy of our friends. May is right to prioritise Turkey. We are not going to sit back and let others, in Europe, Russia or the United States, decide on major issues that touch upon the vital security interests of Britain.
Today’s visit is a first step in that direction.