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Coffee House

Theresa May’s tricky Turkish diplomacy dilemma

14 May 2018

3:44 PM

14 May 2018

3:44 PM

Turkey’s President Erdogan is in London this week, having tea with the Queen and praising Britain as a ‘real friend’. As Robert Ellis says in his Coffee House piece about the way the Turkish regime is becoming increasingly brutal and censorious, a clear benefit for Britain in this friendship is post-Brexit trade with the Turks. But campaigners are asking at what cost this comes, given the human rights abuses of the current regime, and want Theresa May to condemn the practices of the Erdogan government.

This presents a tricky dilemma for the Prime Minister. Turkish political culture – and that of many of the Islamic countries that Britain has strong diplomatic ties with – does not respond well to public shaming. Conversely, British political culture is charged with retweets and demands an instant public condemnation, whether or not this has any long-term benefit at all.

The long-term risk of condemning the Turkish government for all the many things it deserves criticism for is that it stops regarding Britain as a ‘real friend’. This is less of a problem for trade than it is for Turkey’s wider alliances in the world: there are other countries who would also like to be the country’s ‘real friend’, such as Iran and Russia. Turkey’s position in the world, both geographically and historically is one of a country that faces both ways, towards Europe and towards the Middle East. For Erdogan to conclude that it is best to turn away from European allies will not be a good thing for those European allies.

Britain is much clearer than it was on the threat that Russia poses today to this country’s security – the head of MI5 is outlining that in further detail in Berlin – but what is less well understood is the desire of Vladimir Putin to disrupt the alliances that European countries have made across the world. An insecure, angry Turkey is an ideal situation for Putin to exploit.

There are already clear signs that Turkey may be shifting its perspective away from the West. The country did not join other British allies in expelling Russian diplomats after the Salisbury attack. It has also purchased Russian missiles, even though it is a NATO member.

The Foreign Office has long acted with the assumption that criticism is better produced behind closed doors as it may well be listened to and will not push strategically important allies away. The problem for Theresa May is that today’s news cycle and political culture just don’t reward that approach: if she refuses to criticise Erdogan in public, she will be seen as a patsy, merely sucking up to the Turks for economic reasons. She will doubtless conclude that the traditional form of diplomacy is better than picking up a megaphone, but this comes with a cost at home.

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