As EU leaders prepare to gather in Rome to celebrate the European Union’s 60th anniversary, Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson will be some 3,000km away, in Turkey, attending an annual forum between the two countries.
Johnson is expected to meet president Recep Tayyip Erdogan at a golf and spa resort in Antalya on Friday – his second meeting with Erdogan since winning The Spectator’s President Erdogan Offensive Poetry competition. It will also be the latest turn in a journey that has seen Johnson swing from campaigning for Turkey to join the EU to becoming a prominent voice in a string of misleading claims about Turkey during last year’s Brexit campaign.
This weekend’s meeting will coincide with the release of a parliamentary report on UK–Turkey relations on Friday night. The report, excerpts of which have been seen by BuzzFeed News, tries to strike a balance between Britain’s strategic interests and its values.
In the report, the Commons foreign affairs committee supports the construction of a “strategic” relationship between the UK and Turkey, as well as enhancing trade ties and defence and security cooperation between the two countries. But the report also does not shy away from Turkey’s record on human rights.
“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,” the report says.
The report concludes that “successful engagement would serve the prosperity and security of both countries, though a successful Turkey will be one that respects democratic norms.”
The report recognises Turkey’s role in preventing irregular migration into the EU, while hosting a greater number of refugees than any other country in the world – and highlights the country's contributions in the fight against ISIS as it confronts the threat from terrorism at home.
During the preparation of the report, the Foreign Office (FCO) told MPs Britain's attitude toward Turkey is "almost unique" in the wake of last year's attempted coup. “The UK empathises before it criticises ... and this has favourably distinguished it from other countries—particularly those of the EU—in the eyes of the Turkish government,” the report says.
An FCO spokesperson told BuzzFeed News: “We welcome this report on the UK’s relations with Turkey and its praise for the UK’s approach. As the report acknowledges, Turkey remains a vital strategic partner for the UK. It sits on the frontline of some of the most difficult and serious challenges we face.
“The UK works closely with Turkey on regional stability and security, partnering on counterterrorism, and improving markets for British exporters and growing inward investment, and this will remain unchanged following our EU exit.
“We recognise the challenges that Turkey faces and we condemned last July’s coup attempt, which was a shocking attack on Turkish democracy. We have always said that the Turkish government’s response to the coup attempt must be measured. The UK consistently raises human rights issues with our Turkish counterparts.
“We note the report’s recommendations and will consider these and respond in due course."
Parts of the report, as well as the timing of Johnson’s meeting with Erdogan, are likely to raise a few eyebrows in a number of EU member states amid increasingly hostile rhetoric from Ankara.
Earlier this week, the EU summoned Turkey's envoy in Brussels after Erdogan warned that Europeans would be unsafe on the world's streets. Turkey’s president has compared German officials to Nazis after authorities there cancelled rallies aimed at mobilising Turkish voters living in the country ahead of a constitutional referendum. The final days of the Dutch election campaign were dominated by a similar row after Dutch authorities blocked the Turkish foreign minister from holding a rally in the country. Some governments, such as Austria, have called for a freezing of relations with Turkey.
Despite the deteriorating relations, a number of other government officials, including the German foreign minister, have said it is important to keep communication channels with Turkey open. Meanwhile, others point to the fact that last year's EU–Turkey agreement to assist refugees in Turkey and improve border control is working.
The annual meeting is expected to touch upon trade relations, security, and defence cooperation, as well as last year’s attempted coup and Turkey’s upcoming constitutional referendum.
Alberto Nardelli is Europe editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Alberto Nardelli at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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