Is May just horse trading with Erdoğan?

Britain, still reeling from the fallout of the 2016 referendum, can claim the dubious pleasure of living through interesting times. In this sense, and as it prepares for an uncertain future outside the European Union, Britain can find common ground with Turkey, where times have not ceased to be interesting, and whose own relations with its Europe are utterly abject. Sure enough, with both countries sliding away from the EU, the British government is eager to cultivate its relations with Ankara.

Prime Minister Theresa May’s trip to Turkey and discussions with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in January drew criticism for neglecting human rights concerns in favour of naked pragmatism. To be fair to May, she did mildly scold Erdoğan overseeing the harshest crackdown in decades, shortly before announcing a £100 million deal to supply his regime with fighter jets.

This reveals a troubling issue for Britain; with Brexit looming, and as May’s already-weak credibility continues to sway, her government is desperate for any deal that might offset the sense of impending disaster. So, the first sniff of such a deal with Turkey was vindication of her vision, declared May, of Britain as a “great, global, trading nation,” that is “open for business”.

So committed is Britain to this course of action that even the Spectator’s 2016 Offensive Erdoğan Poem Competition winner and gaffe-prone foreign minister, Boris Johnson, has managed to toe the line. Johnson, abstaining since 2016 from poorly-metered insult limericks, instead vowed to support Turkey’s EU accession bid and promised not to “push that extraordinary country away”, even as he protested its imprisonment of journalists and activists.

Having paid lip service to human rights concerns in its March Foreign Affairs Committee report, little remains to prevent the government pursuing whatever opportunities the chaos around Turkey throws up. This, roughly, is the final position taken in the report, which notes the dearth of democracy in Turkey before concluding that strengthening economic and strategic links with the Turkish government is the surest way to protect human rights in the country.

Also telling is the committee’s interview with Foreign Office Minister Sir Alan Duncan, who castigated EU states for their criticisms of Turkey after the 2016 coup attempt, while congratulating his own government for the “almost unique” understanding it showed throughout the same period. With both countries at odds with the EU, the timing is ideal for Britain to relieve those “overly critical” European states of their dealings with their Turkish neighbours. Particularly rich pickings will be up for grabs as Germany, Turkey’s largest trading partner, restricts defence sales and discourages business links between the two states.

May & Erdogan after 2017 Ankara meeting

The January 2017 talks targeted a £3.5 billion increase in trade, and unveiled the TF-X fighter jet development project, described in the Foreign Affairs Committee report as “the heart” of British-Turkish security cooperation, and expected to last for decades – a “lifeline” for Britain’s aerospace industry. This will bring a longer-term income from the project on top of the initial £100 million from its first phase, and further expansion in defence and technology projects is already underway, as the Türksat-Airbus partnership signed on 9 November shows.

While invoking human rights concerns to justify arming human rights abusers represents a particularly flimsy example of doublespeak, there may be genuine benefits from maintaining a close relationship with Turkey. The Foreign Affairs Committee report touches on one of these, suggesting Britain as well-positioned to mediate between antagonistic governments in Turkey, the EU and the United States.

Their relations are undeniably fraught, not least due to the Turkish president’s willingness to lash out at his NATO allies, profiting domestically from the widespread anti-Western sentiment in Turkey through belligerent exchanges with the United States and various EU states. In the past year alone, we have witnessed accusations of Nazism, the arrest of U.S. consulate employees, reciprocal visa bans, and ultimately speculation that Turkey is readying itself for an “axis shift” towards Russia.

Such a shift is unlikely. Firstly, Turkey’s structural limitations would make it economically disastrous. Besides, the “axis-shift” speculation distorts Turkey’s complex geopolitical situation and ignores long-term foreign policy goals. For example, the ambition to emerge as a regional energy hub necessitates cooperation with both the EU and Russia, but can also elicit competition with each. Likewise, Turkey’s recent defence agreements with Russia’s rivals in Ukraine, Georgia and Azerbaijan, illustrates that the two countries frequently have diverging interests. These constitute an enormous obstacle for any fledgling “Eurasian” alliance to overcome.

And despite the current round of theatrics, Turkey is still a crucial partner for both the EU and the United States. A degree of cooperation with Turkey is a necessity for both actors, not least for its influence in the region as the Syrian civil war winds down. The EU will also see the preservation of the refugee deal as vital. A mutual friend in Britain provides all sides with a useful channel for cooperation, and a mediator’s role would be welcomed by Britain as proof of its continued global importance post-Brexit.

May’s rhetoric around the Turkey deals will fool no one. Yet, a course has been set and her government appears united in its determination to keep Ankara on side. A true test of her government’s international sway will be whether it can make good on its promises and turn close relations to a broader benefit, or whether they amount to simple horse trading by two desperate states.