Anglo-Turk ties at new highs

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s official visit to the UK this week is the latest in a series of high-level exchanges between two countries at opposite edges of Europe.

The Turkish leader has had positive relations with the UK
The Turkish leader has had positive relations with the UK

While traditionally suspicious of each other, these two now find themselves amongst the strongest of allies, with Turkey’s European Union ambitions at the heart of this growing relationship.

“Relations are now extremely positive,” says international relations expert Kemal Kirisci of Istanbul’s Bogazici University.

“The British have been very supportive of Turkey getting a date for EU accession talks to begin, and right now this is the most important issue for the Turkish government.”

Meanwhile, trade links between the two have also been booming.

“The UK is now Turkey’s largest market for export goods,” says Duncan Blake, chair of the British-Turkish Chamber of Commerce.

‘Special attention’

Turkey has also gained new prominence among politicians in the UK. 

Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Ankara on 17 May, while the Duke of York, Prince Andrew, embarked on two days of talks to promote British investment in Turkey on 24 May.

Turkey’s influential role in the Middle East prompted Blair to consider making Turkey an annual destination, one of a few countries that enjoy such attention from the UK.

“Britain – along with the US – has been a strategic support for the current Turkish government”

Burak Bekdil,
Turkish commentator

However, others see a hard-headed realpolitik at the heart of this friendship.

“The UK is Turkey’s most vociferous advocate within the EU,” says Blake.

“Why that’s so – well, partly it’s about achieving some kind of East-West balance, while aging Europe also needs access to a younger work force. It’s also about having another large country in the EU to balance the power of France and Germany.”

Turkish commentator Burak Bekdil points to a recent editorial Blair wrote in Le Monde – “the EU would need Turkey as a bridge with the Islamic world” – as the sign of Turkey’s growing influence in the region.

‘Strategic support’

“Britain – along with the US – has provided strategic support to the current Turkish government,” Bekdil says.

“In the British thinking, Prime Minister Recip Tayyip Erdogan is the Turkish leader whose policy fits best with cross-Atlantic interests.

“It’s all hidden in Washington and London’s Greater Middle East Initiative. The role for Turkey is to reform itself, become a full member of the EU … and become a model Muslim state – a mildly Islamic, but secularist government with close ties to the US and Israel and a member of the EU.

“This, in the US-British mindset, is an ideal recipe to keep Muslims in the region away from radicalism,” Bekdil explains.

The UK’s Tony Blair was in Turkey in the middle of May

The UK’s Tony Blair was in Turkey
in the middle of May

Given the history, it is an unusual partnership, as the UK and Turkey have often been at odds before.

Many Turks believe the British to be responsible for the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, which preceded modern Turkey.

During World War I, the two countries were locked in fierce battles for control of the Middle East and the European Balkans.

Turkish history is replete with references to Britain’s support of nationalist, anti-Ottoman movements in Arabia and Greece.

More recently, violence between rival football supporters, which led to the deaths of two English fans in Istanbul in 2000, has tainted reputations in both countries.

Opposing views

The two countries also hold widely differing views on Iraq.

Turkey refused to grant Britain – and the US – permission to use its territory to open a northern front in the invasion of Iraq last year.

Ankara has also long accused Britain and other European countries of supporting Kurdish rights and covertly pushing for a Kurdish state in Northern Iraq.

Never the less, strong economic factors override whatever differences may exist between the two countries.

Britain, for example, is heavily involved in the Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan pipeline, an oil link – which the UK’s British Petroleum (BP) is leading – will bring Caspian Sea oil from Azerbaijan’s offshore fields to the Turkish Mediterranean port of Ceyhan.

Chicken and egg politics

“Baku-Tblisi-Ceyhan is both the chicken and the egg,” says Blake. “It’s very important for Turkey.”

Many Turks were against the war on Iraq

Many Turks were against the war
on Iraq

The pipeline will bring revenue in transit fees to Turkey, as well as boosting its role in the troubled Caucasian and Caspian regions.

British companies have also received high profile status in Turkey’s privatisation campaign, with companies such as Vodafone and British-American Tobacco emerging as prominent players in Turkey’s telecommunications and tobacco sell-offs.

“The biggest problem now is with the lack of foreign direct investment in Turkey,” explains Blake.

“But the current government has had a very positive approach to this. It has done a lot to encourage private sector investment and the direction it is moving in is the right direction,” he says.

While Prime Minister Erdogan begins his tour of the UK, feelings on both sides are at their most positive for a long time.

As Turkey pulls out all the stops ahead of December’s crucial EU summit, which will determine whether Turkey is given a date for EU memberships talks to begin, its ties with the UK seem set to further deepen and strengthen.  

Source : Al Jazeera

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