Nick de Bois is a former Conservative MP for Enfield North and expert in UK/Turkey relations.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that, when it comes to the Middle East, there are fewer countries of greater strategic importance for the UK than Turkey.
The pressure on our longstanding ally, which finds itself confronted with imploding states, a spate of terrorist attacks, and the largest number of refugees in the world, has never been greater.
On Saturday, the Foreign Affairs Committee (FAC) released their report into the UK’s relations with Turkey. In doing so, the Committee rightly acknowledged both the complexity, and the consistency, of the challenges that Turkey is currently facing – and has been for some time.
Those include threats from inside as well as outside of its borders, for example from the PKK – a terrorist organization lauded, shamefully, by some in our own country despite their proven taste for cold-blooded murder.
Another was the failed coup attempt of 2016, which cost the lives of over two hundred innocent people and injured many more. The FAC report makes for interesting reading on the failed coup, particularly when it comes to the role of the Gülenist movement FETÖ.
The FAC stress that they do not understand the ‘fundamental nature and motives’ of the movement that are held as responsible by many for the attack on the Turkish Government that took place last July. Nor can they put their finger on – specifically – the scale of involvement from FETÖ in the coup.
The FAC appear, if anything, a little confused on the issue. Alan Duncan, a foreign office minister, certainly wasn’t earlier this year. In an evidence session, Duncan noted the ‘significant involvement’ of FETÖ in the failed coup. In doing so he was the first Western Minister to share the view of the Turkish Government, and brand them (nigh on) entirely responsible.
Sir Alan also rightly pointed out that Turks won’t forget so easily what happened last year. The Parliament in Turkey nearly went up in flames. The President was almost killed. Around 250 people died.
By contrast, the vague nature of the FAC’s conclusions on the failed coup can actually be criticised as inconclusive. That’s not great. Since they have already embarked on examining this aspect of the failed coup, then it may be prudent for the FAC to do more work to get to the bottom of it – and, in doing so, spell out exactly who was responsible.
Such is the critical importance of this issue to Ankara – this is a matter of real priority. In the meantime, it’s hard to conclude anything else but that the real nature of the so-called Gülen movement remains highly opaque.
In terms of what we’ve seen in Turkey since the coup, the report is, in places, highly critical. And rightly so. We should never condone any abuses of human rights. And – as I have said previously – it is of absolute importance that the Turkish Government respects the fundamental institutions of democratic government, and acts in proportion to the current security threats they are facing.
If this isn’t the case, then the UK needs to make it clear that it absolutely should be. As the report itself states, the UK must be both ‘seen and heard’ on the issue of human rights. That’s a given.
Another given is that – overall – this report really does strike a very different tone to that being pursued by the major players in Europe when it comes to Turkey. It reaffirms the UK’s commitment to the country at a time when others in Europe are lining up to do the opposite, particularly Germany.
It stresses the history and longstanding importance of our ties together at a time when other countries are reaching for the diplomatic sharp-scissors. And it explores the opportunities for the UK to work together with Turkey, particularly on issues of trade and defence. I can’t help but feel buoyed by this.
As a proud Brexit supporter it’s refreshing to see. Finally, it feels like we have the guts to go it alone and say what we think in front of the EU! That may not always be the right approach, but when it comes to our ties with Turkey it is absolutely the right thing to do.
A productive partnership brings within it enormous opportunities for both countries, and the FAC report acknowledges that. Take the £100 million fighter jet deal signed back in January, for example, which will enhance existing links and keep us both safer too. Or our existing trade (1.5 per cent of our total exports go to Turkey currently), which looks set to grow very quickly.
Other sectors where the UK can play a positive role are too often overlooked. For example, Turkey have committed to vast improvements in education and healthcare, two policy areas where Britain certainly equipped to help them with in the future.
These are the kind of things that make Turkey – in the words of the FAC – an ‘essential partner’ in the modern world, and on the issues that really matter in post-Brexit Britain.