By Edward Rowe and Polat Üründül,
The Anglo-Turkish relationship is an old one with many milestones. Turkey’s predecessor, the Ottoman Empire, opened its first London embassy in 1793 and made a trade agreement with Britain as early as 1838. Less than two decades on, both countries found themselves on the same side, allying against Russia during the Crimean War of the 1850s. At this time, Turkey’s role was of paramount importance to Britain as a barrier to Tsarist expansion. The Ottoman straits were so important for Britain that she sent the Royal Navy to the Mediterranean Sea in order to prevent the Russians from taking them, because the straits falling under Russian control could threaten British colonies in South Asia. Moreover, it was Benjamin Disraeli who wanted the Turks to reject the Berlin Memorandum after Bulgarians rebelled against the Ottomans in 1876. Losing the Balkans could pave the way for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire which Britain firmly opposed due to the balance of power in the region. After a century, Turkey and Britain found themselves fighting together against Communists in the Korean Peninsula. This ensured possible joint actions in case of any attack against Turkey or Britain in future. In 1952, Turkey's role evolved as the Turkish Republic signed the Washington Treaty. In doing so, Turkey secured the south-eastern flank of the free world, joining NATO as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” and a bulwark against the Bolshevism of the USSR.
Whether in trade, security co-operation, on addressing the Syrian and refugee crises, the Cyprus issue and relations between NATO, Russia and post-Soviet Asia, Turkey remains a critical ally for Britain today in numerous areas. This August for example saw British Minister for Europe and the Americas, Alan Duncan make his fifth official visit to Turkey since the July 2016 failed coup attempt. Averaging at around one every 3 months, Mr Duncan’s recent trips show just how crucial the partnership between Turkey and Britain is. The minister was the first overseas official to visit Turkey after the coup attempt. At the same time, British Prime Minister Theresa May was the first foreign leader to call the Turkish Government and offer any kind of help during the coup attempt. Britain showed great responsibility by supporting Turkish democracy without excuses, while most of the Western countries were dismissive of what happened in July 2016. Recognizing UK's collaboration after the coup attempt, Turkish Prime Minister Binali Y?ld?r?m stated that his country has political will to move bilateral relations forward. Turkey was also the second and final stop following the US on a diplomatic tour by Prime Minister Theresa May last January, and the importance of this friendship is truly hammered home by William Hague’s comments in March last year that Ankara was the allied capital he called the most as Foreign Secretary after Washington.
What’s more is that in some ways, Turkey and Britain have rather lot in common over Europe too. As Prime Minister Y?ld?r?m put it when asked about accession to the European Union earlier this year in a joint press conference with Theresa May, "the ones who enter are pi?man (regretful) the ones who don’t enter are pi?man". He effectively summarized certain problems with the EU that both countries share. While neither Britain nor Turkey are entirely happy about the cession of sovereignty to an international body that comes with full membership of the bloc, they both understand the importance of open and frictionless trade with it whether through accessing the Single Market or Customs Union respectively. While Turkey at present still pursues accession despite several spats with EU member states in the not too distant past, it may be that a similar partnership to the one Britain is pursuing may ultimately be a preferable outcome. Indeed, paraphrasing the Conservative MEP and prominent Brexit campaigner Daniel Hannan, both countries, may be better off as the EU’s “good neighbors rather than bad tenants”. In effect, this could well be in the interests of all sides. Britain, Turkey and the EU trading, co-operating closely in numerous sectors as three distinct entities and benefiting as a result, would fulfill another key principle of trade, that—quoting Mr Hannan fully this time—“prosperous neighbors make the best customers.”
One could say that Brexit will also affect the EU – Turkey relations as the British have always backed Turkey's full membership to the EU. After Britain leaves the EU, Turkey's hand will be weakened against Belgium, France and Germany, where populist parties increase their strength by pursuing Anti-Turkish and Islamophobic policies. Nevertheless, Turkey and the UK will remain as the guardians of Europe both militarily and economically. Just as Turkey's EU minister Ömer Çelik said, Turkey and the UK are placed at the gates of Europe, protecting the continent from any conflict. If the EU signs new trade arrangements with both countries, Turkey and the UK may continue to contribute in European trade. Having the greatest armies in Europe, Turks and the British may also prevent threats against Europe such as the Russian aggression, illegal migration and terrorism. The partnership between Turkey and Britain has already been successful in combatting terrorism. Both countries share intelligence with one another to prevent any terrorist attacks and combat terrorist on the field. While Britain benefitted from such partnership in terms of detecting Britons fighting for jihadist groups in Syria, intelligence shared by the British also helped Turkey in her fight against the PKK terrorist organisation. The common struggle against jihadism also became more pronounced after deadly terrorist attacks in both countries. In addition, both countries' commitment to peace and respect for the rights of many suffering abroad makes them suitable to cooperate anywhere in the world as peacemakers. Having similar approaches on issues such as the Qatar-Gulf crisis, the Syrian Civil War and massacre of Rohingya Muslims, Turkey and the UK can play crucial roles as mediators. This will likely make the Turkey- UK relationship much more stronger.
Bilaterally, London and Ankara are on the right track. During her January visit Mrs May announced a multi-million pound agreement that British and Turkish aerospace companies would collaborate on building the next generation of Turkish fighter jets. Her counterpart Mr Y?ld?r?m also declared that the two would make a free trade deal after Brexit, in keeping with Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s comments last year that he was hoping for a “jumbo” trade agreement with Ankara. UK-Turkey trade, already at an impressive volume of £13.22 bn last year, is also forecasted to grow after Britain leaves the EU. Business people discussed ways to seize upon these new opportunities when the Turkish-British Chamber of Commerce and Industry held its annual UK-Turkey Business Forum with Turkish Government endorsement in Istanbul on September 29. With such strong foundations, similar outlooks and mutual interests, the UK-Turkey partnership is going strong, and looks set to go even further.
He studied English Language and Literature at Bilkent University. He received his M.A. degree in International Relations and European Studies from University of Portsmouth. Polat Urundul is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the department of International Relations at Middle East Technical University (METU).
Edward Rowe holds B.A. Degree in History and Study of Religions from SOAS, University of London. He studied MA Turkish Studies at the same university.