The UK’s relations with Turkey Contents

1An “understanding” relationship, during a crucial period for Turkey and the UK

An “understanding” relationship

The coup attempt, and the UK’s distinctive understanding of Turkey

7.On the evening of 15 July 2016, Turkey suffered a coup attempt. This was an attack against Turkey’s democracy, and it was thwarted in a large part owing to the bravery of many members of the Turkish public who took to the streets in opposition. At least 241 people were killed, and Members of the Committee were able to express their condolences and support for democracy when they visited Turkey in January 2017. The coup attempt and its consequences are examined in more detail in Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 of this report.

8.The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) repeatedly uses the word “understanding” when referring to its own appreciation of the impact of the coup attempt on Turkey, and says that this understanding is a central and distinctive feature of the UK’s relationship with Turkey. Rt Hon Sir Alan Duncan MP, the Minister of State at the FCO for Europe and the Americas, with responsibility for Turkey, told us:

That coup attempt is the main issue in the psyche, mentality and attitude of the Turkish government and indeed the Turkish people at the moment.4 [ … ]If you don’t understand it, you’re never going to understand them or be able to have a proper relationship with them.5

9.Sir Alan told us that the understanding that the UK had shown to Turkey came close to being unique. When asked what Turkey wanted from its relationship with the UK, he replied:

Respect, engagement at all levels and a clear understanding, which I think we almost uniquely have displayed, of the predicament they are in. They feel that they are under constant and regular assault from a number of directions: internally following the coup attempt of 15 July; and from the PKK and ISIS.6

When explaining how the UK’s response to the coup attempt was distinctive from that of other countries, Sir Alan again repeated the importance of taking an understanding approach:

Whereas everyone else was rather quick, from the comfort of their armchairs, to wag their fingers, we tried to understand exactly what the coup attempt really was. [ … ] This singled us out, certainly from the rest of the European Union but also from many other countries. We made a distinctive stand, which was to empathise ahead of in any way criticising, whereas others criticised straightaway and even now are very slow to empathise.7

A contrast with the European Union in particular

10.The UK’s understanding of Turkey’s situation was contrasted by Sir Alan with what he described as the European Union’s (EU’s) lack thereof:

I think there has been insufficient understanding in many quarters, particularly within the membership of the European Union, about what Turkey had to face and still faces.8[ … ]What was important with the Turks was to ask the questions and understand first, before criticising later. The EU was overcritical too quickly.9 [ … ]. Our judgment in making it absolutely clear that we [the UK] understand what they [Turkey] have been going through has been the right one. I am pleased to say that they appreciate it and we appreciate their appreciation.10

11.The criticisms that Sir Alan mentioned in his answer refer largely to the aftermath of the coup attempt. This saw, among other actions, the declaration of a State of Emergency in Turkey and the detention or dismissal from their employment of a large number of people from a wide range of sectors. We examine the response to the coup attempt in Chapter 4 of this report. The argument of the Turkish government, with which Sir Alan agreed, has been that the EU in particular showed insufficient understanding of the threat that Turkey faced and moved too quickly to condemn the actions that Turkey took in response. A written submission to this inquiry from the Turkish Embassy in London told the Committee that the EU’s reaction to the coup attempt had damaged Turkey’s relationship with the bloc:

Unfortunately, the level of trust in public opinion has decreased and the support for EU accession in Turkey has fallen very low[ … ]probably the most important [reason] is that the EU was unable to understand what Turkey went through during the foiled coup attempt of 15 July. They reacted in a wrong way and too late. Turkey is going through a very difficult time and Turkish public needs to feel that the EU understands and reacts much better to the terrorist threats Turkey is facing, whatever source they may come from.11

12.In order to demonstrate its understanding, the UK moved to undertake swift displays of solidarity with Turkey after the coup attempt. The FCO told us in its written submission that

The UK immediately condemned the attempted coup and offered strong support for Turkey’s democratic institutions and the constitutional order. It was vital for the UK to stand shoulder–to–shoulder with a trusted ally, defend democracy and reject violence as a means of seizing power. Had the coup succeeded, the consequences for Turkey, its partners and the region would have been extremely damaging. Following telephone calls by the [Prime Minister], Foreign and Defence Secretaries, the Minister for Europe and the Americas travelled to Ankara on 20 and 21 July to express condolences for the lives lost and to demonstrate UK solidarity. He was the first minister from a major Western country to visit after the attempted coup. The Foreign Secretary further demonstrated UK support during his visit to Turkey on 25–27 September.12

The Turkish Embassy told us how Turkey had valued this solidarity:

The UK has been the first European country voicing its strong and clear support in the wake of the attempted coup in Turkey. Again, it has been the first European country sending a high–level envoy to Turkey to offer official condolences. This support has been exceptionally valuable for and very warmly received by Turkey.13

13.We welcome the UK’s strong condemnation of the 15 July 2016 coup attempt. This was an attack on Turkey’s democracy. We condemn it, and have expressed our condolences for the loss of life. Through its prompt displays of solidarity, the FCO ensured that the UK was seen by Turkey’s leadership as a friend and close ally of the Turkish people. However, the anti-Western rhetoric that is prevalent in the popular discourse in Turkey, and historic suspicions around British policy, still influence perceptions of the UK in Turkey.

A divided society in Turkey

A cultural and political divide

14.When developing our own understanding of Turkey’s current situation, the Committee observed deep divisions within Turkish society. Witnesses told us that these divisions carried profound implications for Turkish politics, not least because they drove intense competition between different factions for control of the state in Turkey. Ziya Meral, from the Centre for Historical Analysis and Conflict Research, told us that

I think an aspect of it is that the state is an attractive thing in itself in Turkey. The state is so powerful and so lucrative. There is no imagination of political or religious influence outside taking control of the state. That is the legacy of a strong nation state that has been governed in a particular way.14

Bill Park, from King’s College, University of London, said in his evidence that a range of factions therefore sought to control the state within Turkey, even if they did so without formally holding power by being elected to government:

In Turkey, quite a lot of things come down to battles for control over state institutions. The Government is calling the Gülenists a parallel state, and it is right, but the [ruling Justice and Development Party] and the Kemalists are also parallel states.15

15.This competition to control is so strong because Turkish society is deeply divided. We were told that different perspectives in Turkey—in part rooted in ideology but also in other aspects such as culture, locality, and faith—had come to fear and exclude one another while each seeking to control the state. The British Council told us that

[Turkey is] deeply polarised between conservative, traditional or more overtly religious individuals on the one side and those who identify as more liberal, secular and progressive on the other. These two ‘halves’ of Turkey traditionally distrust each other and do not interact.16

Professor Hale, from SOAS, told us that, in his rhetoric, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan described this ‘them and us’ divide in the language of black and white, with the AK Party being partisan towards—and drawing its support from—one particular side:

There is a speech [Erdoğan] made quite early in the AK Party where he talks about the white Turks and the black Turks. By the white Turks, he means the old Kemalist establishment—a large proportion of whom, incidentally, were drawn from refugees from Russia, the Balkans and other countries—whereas the black Turks implies the native inhabitants of Anatolia, who are now the majority in coming to power. He says, “There has been a division between the white Turks and the black Turks, and your brother Tayyip is a black Turk.” So he is making a distinct appeal to that section.17

16.This fundamental divide in Turkish society is sometimes articulated by commentators in the language of ‘Islamism’ as opposed to ‘secularism’, with the AK Party representing an Islamist current against the historical predominance of the ‘Kemalist’18 secularist establishment. Witnesses told us that attitudes towards faith were one, important, part of the divide in Turkey. But they said that it was broadly inaccurate to describe the AK Party as ‘Islamist’. We were told that demand for ‘Sharia law’, however that was interpreted, was low and declining in Turkey,19 while electoral support for the AK Party had risen. Dr Katerina Dalacoura, an Associate Professor in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science, emphasised the nationalist elements of the AK Party and Erdoğan’s ideology, as well as their commitment to secularism:

Erdoğan is as much a Turkish nationalist as he is an Islamist. His brand of Islamism has a strong Turkish imprint as became clear in his visit to Egypt in 2011 when he advised the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood about the benefits of secularism.20

17.Witnesses agreed that, inasmuch as religion mattered to President Erdoğan and the AK Party, it was in the sense of promoting personal, social piety rather than providing a formal role for Islam in the laws, constitution, or institutions of the state.21 But, as well as describing the ‘Islamist versus secularist’ analogy as too simplistic, we were also told that this was not a strict socio-economic division between ‘rich’ and ‘poor’. Witnesses described a division in Turkey that was rooted in broad cultural differences, even though it manifested itself in divided—and divisive—politics. Ziya Meral summarised the division, and its problematic implications for Turkey:

It is no more the case that the secular Turks are rich and the conservative ones are poor. In fact, there is a really wealthy religiously conservative elite in Turkey. It is the Turkish culture wars between the traditional Kemalist establishment/coastal Turks, and the conservative Turks on the other hand, with much more Anatolian cultural values. It is the history of 100 years of grievances, management, military regime and reaction to it.

If there is one ideology, I explain it from a sociological perspective, vis-à-vis a constituency that is always scared. This coup attempt confirmed their fear that if Erdoğan and the AK Party were to fall, they will go back to where things were. In other words, there will be a much tighter military Ankara-secularist regime that excludes them. That is why there are all these expressions of, “Stand firm. We are behind you. If he falls, we fall.” You hear a lot of that fear. The closest I can get to an ideology is maintenance of that grievance that that cohort will lose if the AK Party was to disappear.22

18.Contrary to the mainstream media narrative on Turkey,23 Turkish society is not polarised between two poles, be they ‘secularists liberals’ and ‘religious conservatives.’ It is a multipolar and deeply fragmented society between the different Islamist and nationalist groups, secularists, liberals, the Kurds and Alevis, among others. Elections and previous referendums showed that the largest of these fragments is the pro-Erdoğan camp. This leads to the competition for political authority being seen as a zero-sum game and leaves little room for consensus between rival parties.

19.Turkey is a deeply divided country. The degree of political interaction between its competing social, cultural, and religious interpretations appears limited, and their fear of one another is great. Control of the state, and its power, is highly coveted in this context, because each side has sought to protect its supporters by empowering itself while excluding its opponents. The relationship that the FCO establishes with Turkey must not just be with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, or with the Justice and Development Party alone. Indeed, it 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. The UK should support programmes that seek engagement with the Turkish people, whichever background they hold, while working to uphold the values of human rights and democracy that benefit them all.

The implications of the referendum on expanding the presidency’s power

20.Although Turkey’s presidency is a largely ceremonial office under the terms of Turkey’s current constitution, witnesses told us that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan continues to wield as much power as President and Head of State as he did as Prime Minister and Head of Government. Evidence to our inquiry also said that, while the current constitution stipulates that the President should not be affiliated with a political party, the power that President Erdoğan exercises is rooted in both his control of the AK Party, and the AK Party’s majority in parliament. The AK Party has held a parliamentary majority since first being elected to government in 2002, with the exception of briefly losing it between the elections of June and November 2015. Bill Park, from King’s College, University of London, told us that the AK Party had once encompassed a broad range of perspectives, but that it was becoming increasingly homogenous and based on personal loyalty to the President:

When it first came to power, it was also a broad church. It had a liberal element and even an almost secular element. Most of those people have gone. They have either been massaged out of the party by Erdoğan or they have left of their own accord or they were trouble. The party has increasingly come to obedience or loyalty to Erdoğan himself. It owes its position to him. He handpicked most of the MPs at the most recent elections. People depend on him in a patronage system and sympathise with him. I think the AK party has changed quite a lot, and it has become much more a mirror of Erdoğan himself than it could have ever been when it first came to power.24

21.As well as President Erdoğan’s control over the AK Party witnesses described growing control by the ruling AK Party over other institutions within Turkey that have formally or informally checked the government’s power. This has included a growing politicisation of the judiciary, as described in Chapter 6, which has seen the appointment or dismissal of judges and the exercise of their power becoming increasingly partisan in practice. It has also included the armed forces, which have a history of intervening against civilian governments in Turkey. Bill Park told us that specific court cases under the AK Party had contributed to the government’s growing influence over the military:

The so-called ‘Ergenekon’ and ‘Balyoz’ trials of the ‘deep state’ led to the conviction in 2012 and 2013 of hundreds of military officers and the resignations of hundreds more. Although the sentences have since been rescinded given the largely fabricated nature of the evidence, the impact was to neuter the domestic political power of the Turkish military, an outcome strengthened by increasing government intrusion into the promotion practices of the general staff.25

Ziya Meral concluded that “without Erdoğan at this moment, there is nobody, and that is his making”.26

22.Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has made himself as central to 21st century Turkey as Mustafa Kemal Atatürk was in the 20th century. The choices that he makes now will determine whether his overall legacy will largely be positive, for Turkey and more widely. The wrong choices have the potential to deliver catastrophe well beyond Turkey’s borders. The right choices would cement Turkey’s position as a liberal, democratic state which provides a philosophical and ideological bridge between West and East.

23.Turkey is currently debating whether to formalise the de facto power of the President by amending Turkey’s constitution to expand the power of the presidency. Professor William Hale, from SOAS, told us that there was broad agreement on the need to revise Turkey’s current constitution, which was enacted under military rule in the 1980s and includes restrictive terms.27 Professor Hale also said that the proposed amendments could be interpreted as making “little difference”, in practice, given the control that President Erdoğan has already established.28 But there has been resistance to formally establishing this power within an amended constitution.

24.The proposed amendments to the constitution29 would increase the President’s power in ways that include abolishing the position of Prime Minister and making ministers accountable to the President. They would also see all senior judges appointed by politicians, and most of them by the President. The President would also gain the power to propose the budget under the proposals, and lose some of the checks to which the presidency is currently subjected. The proposed amendments were passed by the Turkish parliament in January 2017,30 predominantly by members from the AK Party who also required the support of elements from the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) to reach the required vote threshold. The opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) and Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP) opposed the reforms. The proposed changes to the constitution are now due to be put to the Turkish public for approval or rejection in a referendum on 16 April 2017, with the likely outcome of the vote appearing close and therefore uncertain.

25.Our inquiry heard different perspectives in terms of what implications there would be for the future of Turkey if Recep Tayyip Erdoğan formally became an executive President. His critics and opponents provided a negative outlook for such an outcome. Dr Natalie Martin, from Nottingham Trent University, told us that the referendum, along with other policies associated with President Erdoğan, should be “viewed through the prism of this power-grab over the past decade [ … ] The point of them all has been to further Erdoğan’s personal ambitions”.31 A submission from the opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) told us that “President Erdoğan, by broadening his own powers, intends to legitimize a regime which excludes anyone but his own voters.”32

26.But it was also explained to us why the formal expansion of the powers of the executive, whether under the State of Emergency or through an amendment to the constitution, could hold advantages for Turkey. For example, Mina Toksoz, from Chatham House, wrote in the context of her submission about Turkey’s economy that

The wider popular support for an executive presidency is based on the perception of a repeatedly dysfunctional parliamentary party system that in the past led to military coups. This view is reflected in the support given by the Turkish Chambers of Commerce to Emergency Rule following the July attempted coup. The government economic policy team also welcomed the executive powers under Emergency Rule as an opportunity to pass politically difficult pension, labour market, and other structural reforms. This authoritarian turn has also enabled major policy reversals such as patching up relations with Russia that led to the re-launch of the Turk-Stream gas pipeline and discussions with Israel regarding co-operation on the Eastern Mediterranean gas reserves.33

27.On 16 April 2017, the Turkish people are due to vote in a referendum on whether to amend Turkey’s constitution to significantly expand the powers of the President. The choice is theirs, and the UK Government must not support one side or the other.

28.The proposed changes would constitutionally entrench the centralisation of power in the presidency beyond the current incumbent. However, it could be argued, from a UK perspective, that an approval of the proposed changes would make no de-facto difference to governance in Turkey or to Turkish policy in the short term, because it will make de jure the current situation. But there are concerns over the timing of the referendum, coming as it does at a point where freedom of expression and assembly has deteriorated in Turkey. It is difficult to foresee a fair, free and credible referendum when media, opposition MPs and civic organisations critical of the government have been closed down or silenced. The current period of Emergency Rule has also significantly expanded the power of the executive while simultaneously restricting certain rights and freedoms. Both the deep divisions that we have observed within Turkish society and the intensity of the competition to control the state are likely to be worsened by the referendum campaign whatever its outcome.

29.The settling of this constitutional question should leave President Erdoğan with strategic choices where there is a clear UK interest in supporting constructive policies. These include the Kurdish question, the healing of Turkish politics after the coup attempt of 15 July 2016, the advancement of judicial independence and the rule of law alongside other human and political rights, the sustaining of a successful economy, and other central challenges to Turkey that we address later in this Report. Shaping a positive legacy for the commanding figure of 21st century Turkish politics is in the interest of the UK’s economy, security, and values whatever the outcome of the referendum. Now is a profound moment of choice for Turkey’s future, in terms of whether it will be a repressive or a recovering country.

30.A central challenge that Turkey will face is the need to strengthen its public and state institutions. These have been weakened as a result of the acrimony in the country’s politics over the past decade, and were further weakened by the coup attempt and the government’s response. When facing its future challenges, Turkey will need an effective military, independent economic and judicial institutions, as well as a free and vibrant media, among other institutions. The UK should assist Turkey in developing both the capacity and independence of these institutions.

4 Q134

5 Q137

6 Q132

7 Q137

8 Q160

9 Q191

10 Q146

11 Turkish Embassy, TUR0043, Q5

12 Foreign and Commonwealth Office TUR0010 para 7

13 Turkish Embassy TUR0012 p 2

14 Q34

15 Q34

16 British Council TUR0034 para 9.1

17 Q29

18 ‘Kemalist’ refers to supporters of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk and his vision of a modern secular state.

19 See Q25 [Ziya Meral]; and Q26 [Bill Park]

20 Dr Katerina Dalacoura TUR0021 para 3

21 See, for example, Q24 [Ziya Meral]; and Q26 [Bill Park]

22 Q28

23 See, for example, Erdogan triumph leaves Turkey polarised, BBC News, 2 November 2015

24 Q23

25 Mr Bill Park TUR0032 para 2

26 Q28

27 William Hale TUR0007 para 6

28 William Hale TUR0007 para 6

29 For a summary of the proposed changes see, for example, Centre for Turkey Studies, CEFTUS briefing on the proposed changes to the Turkish constitution, 15 December 2016; and Council of Europe, Proposed constitutional amendments in Turkey would be a “dangerous step backwards” for democracy, says the Venice Commission, 10 March 2017

30 Turkey passes last article of constitutional change, Anadolu Agency, 15 January 2017

31 Dr Natalie Martin TUR0016 p 7

32 Republican People’s Party (CHP) TUR0038 Section 1

33 Dr Mina Toksoz TUR0033 p 3

23 March 2017