Britain’s Theresa May in Turkey to seek stronger ties after Brexit vote

US President Donald Trump greeting British Prime Minister Theresa May as she arrives at the White House in Washington, USA, on Jan 27, 2017.
US President Donald Trump greeting British Prime Minister Theresa May as she arrives at the White House in Washington, USA, on Jan 27, 2017.PHOTO: EPA

ANKARA (AFP) – British Prime Minister Theresa May arrived in Turkey on Saturday (Jan 28) for her first visit since becoming premier, hoping to expand ties and seal a new trading relationship before Britain leaves the EU.

Fresh from meeting new US President Donald Trump at the White House, May was to hold talks with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Binali Yildirim on a one-day visit to the Turkish capital Ankara.

As is traditional for any visiting leader, she started the visit by laying a wreath at the mausoleum of Turkey’s modern founder Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

May will be looking to strike a delicate balance between showing Britain’s keen interest in expanding trade with Turkey while echoing European alarm over the magnitude of the crackdown since the July 15 failed coup.

Turkey, which has sought to join the European Union since the 1960s, has long seen Britain as one of the most enthusiastic supporters of its troubled bid.

But following Britain’s June vote to leave the bloc, both sides are now looking to bring a new dynamic to relations, with London seeking to firm up post-Brexit trade deals with non-EU states.

Symbolically, her visit to Turkey is the last leg of a trip which took her to the White House as the first foreign leader to be hosted by Trump.

May’s spokeswoman said increased security cooperation, especially on aviation, and a new trade relationship post-Brexit would top the agenda at the talks.

Countering criticism from MPs that Britain was cosying up to Turkey while turning a blind eye to its human rights record, the spokeswoman emphasised that there were no issues May would steer away from.

“She thinks it’s important – and in the UK’s national interest – to engage with Turkey on a range of issues from defence and security cooperation to capitalising on trade opportunities,” she said.

She added: “I don’t think there are any issues that the prime minister is afraid to bring up.” 

The spokeswoman said Britain was quick to express its support for the Turkish government after the failed coup bid but indicated London was closely following the extent of the crackdown.

“We urge Turkey to ensure that their response is proportionate, justified and in line with international human rights obligations.”

Around 43,000 people are under arrest on charges of links to the coup bid, which Ankara blames on the US based preacher Fethullah Gulen. He denies the charges.

Ahead of May’s visit, Britain’s Trade and Investment Minister Mark Price held a series of meetings with Turkish ministers in Ankara.

Bilateral trade between the two countries amounted to more than US$16 billion (S$22.9 billion) in 2015, Turkish figures show, with Britain the second most important country for exports and 11th in terms of imports.

Three months after the Brexit vote, foreign minister Boris Johnson made a colourful visit to Turkey during which he said Britain was seeking a “jumbo free trade deal” with Ankara.

Noting that trade ties were already significant, Johnson said he was the “proud” owner of a Turkish washing machine and acknowledged that Britain’s iconic Jaffa Cake biscuits were owned by a Turkish confectionary giant.

He also ebulliently brushed off the embarrassment of penning the winning entry in an offensive poetry competition about Erdogan which was published by The Spectator magazine earlier in the year.

Back in the UK, MPs have urged May not to let her eagerness to promote trade overshadow human rights concerns over Turkey’s post-coup crackdown.

“The Conservative Brexit government is so desperate for trade deals with anyone but the mature democracies of the European Union that even the most unsavoury rulers are to be subjected to the prime ministerial charm,” opposition Liberal Democrat MP Sarah Olney wrote in the Guardian newspaper.

Writers’ group PEN International called on May to raise “serious concerns about the grave violations” being committed within the state of emergency imposed in Turkey after the coup.