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 in the Mediterranean. After a century, this role evolved as the Turkish Republic signed the Washington Treaty in 1952. 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 almost one every 3 months, Mr Duncan’s recent trips show just how crucial the partnership between our two countries is.
If the fact that Turkey was the second and final stop following the US on a diplomatic tour by Prime Minister Theresa May last January didn’t confirm this already, 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, our countries have rather lot in common over Europe too. As Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım 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 pişman (regretful) the ones who don’t enter are pişman”. He effectively summarised 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 neighbours 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 fulfil another key principle of trade, that—quoting Mr Hannan fully this time—“prosperous neighbours make the best customers.”
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 Yıldırım 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. Businesspeople are getting ready to seize upon these new opportunities as the Turkish-British Chamber of Commerce and Industry prepares to hold its annual UK-Turkey Business Forum in Istanbul this month with Turkish Government endorsement.
With such strong foundations, similar outlooks and mutual interests, the UK-Turkey partnership is going strong, and looks set to go even further.