The UK’s relations with Turkey Contents


As a vital country facing a volatile period, Turkey both needs and deserves the UK’s support. Turkey hosts a greater number of refugees than any country in the world, and it plays a crucial role in preventing irregular migration into the EU, despite the inadequate international support that it receives for doing so. In addition to the threat from terrorism by the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) and its offshoots that Turkey confronts, Turkey has made many crucial contributions to the fight against ISIL.

As well as supporting Turkey’s defence of itself against terrorism, the UK established itself as a close friend of the Turkish people with the swift condemnation and solidarity that it offered after the coup attempt of 15 July 2016. In the face of those threats, the FCO told us that the understanding that the UK has shown to Turkey is almost unique. The UK empathises before it criticises, we were told, and this has favourably distinguished it from other countries—particularly those of the EU—in the eyes of the Turkish government.

Both the British and Turkish governments have stressed the opportunities inherent in expanding their trade ties along with defence and security co-operation. But our impression has been of two countries that share interests more than they share values, and the UK risks being perceived as de-prioritising its concern for human rights in its drive to establish a “strategic” relationship with Turkey.

Despite the FCO’s emphasis on “understanding” Turkey, we continue to assess that the inadequate funding provided to the FCO has led to a worrying weakening of its independent analytical capacity, and may jeopardize the UK’s ability to seize on the opportunities presented by Brexit. The FCO knows too little for itself about who was responsible for the coup attempt in Turkey, or about the ‘Gülenists’—followers of the exiled Turkish Islamic cleric Fethullah Gülen—whom the Turkish government exclusively blames for the coup. We found that the Turkish government’s account of the Gülenists and the coup, which the FCO seems willing to accept broadly at face value, is not substantiated by hard, publicly available evidence, although as yet uncontradicted by the same standard. More broadly, we disagree with the FCO’s implication that the severity of the measures undertaken by the Turkish government after the coup attempt is justified by the scale of the threat.

The Turkish government has used the expanded powers afforded by the country’s State of Emergency to detain or dismiss a large number of people, based on a broad definition of ‘terrorism’ and a low threshold of evidence. Despite the severity of the threat posed to Turkey by terrorism and the coup attempt, the scale of the current purges—and the fact that most of those affected were in the education sector or civil service rather than the military or security forces—means that we cannot consider them to be a necessary and proportionate response. The number of people who have been punished is extraordinary, and their means of redress are inadequate.

The Turkish government has applied its Emergency powers far beyond addressing the circumstances of the coup. The civilian suffering caused by the war between Turkey and PKK terrorists in the south-east of the country, examples of alleged human rights violations and impunity by the security forces, the erosion of freedom of expression and assembly, the decline of judicial independence, and the restriction of civil society organisations—all problems in Turkey before the coup—have worsened in its aftermath. Once held up as an example to the region, Turkey’s democracy and democratic culture are under severe pressure. We share the widespread concern about the arrest and continuing detention of Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) parliamentarians.

On human rights in Turkey, the UK must be both seen and heard: It must raise its concerns about Turkey with the Turks in public, while also cultivating the influence required to press Turkey for meaningful change. We support the expansion of trade and defence ties between the UK and Turkey, not only because of the security and prosperity benefits for both countries but also because of the strong voice that these ties should give the UK in Ankara. It is a voice that we expect the UK to use, not least so that its human rights concerns are heard. We recommend that the FCO designate Turkey as a Human Rights Priority Country in its next Human Rights and Democracy Report.

President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has come to command politics in 21st century Turkey. In his hands now lies the future of Turkey as either a repressive or recovering state. During our visit to Turkey in 2017, we were encouraged by the nascent language of restraint and reconciliation that we heard at the highest levels. But it stood in stark contrast to the pessimism often voiced by President Erdoğan’s political opponents, as well as by a range of activists, business leaders and individual Turkish citizens.

Turkey has profound social and cultural divisions. They manifest themselves not only in its divisive politics, but also in an intense competition by those with different perspectives to capture and control the state. The campaigning ahead of the constitutional referendum set for 16 April 2017 looks set to exacerbate these divisions. The FCO made little mention of these divisions to us, but they run deep and pre-date President Erdoğan, the AK Party, and Turkey’s current struggles. While being a legacy of Turkey’s history, these divisions will also define the challenges that Turkey will face in the future.

The relationship that the FCO establishes with Turkey must not just be with the state apparatus, or with whichever party or person currently controls it. The UK should seek a deeper and therefore more durable connection with the Turkish people, whatever background they are from, while working to uphold the values of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, which will sustain the UK’s economic, security and values interests in the relationship.

23 March 2017