Britain’s future role in the world, not to mention current foreign policy, was virtually absent from national campaigning before the General Election. But once upon a time Britain seemed to care about ‘punching above its weight’ in foreign affairs, a consoling form of exertion after losing an Empire. Britain still has permanent membership of the UN Security Council even if this modest proximity to power, more often than not means being vetoed by Russia and China.
Apart from the danger of finding neurotoxins “on the knocker”, rather than BREXIT Party canvassers, there were a number of foreign policy questions that should have commanded public attention, including our relations with Turkey. Some may have noticed that President Erdogan, a grim presence at the recent NATO meeting, opened an eco-Mosque on 5th December in Cambridge. He told the audience that ISIS, the Gulen movement (an international progressive Muslim organisation some of whose members joined in the 2016 military coup against him) and the PKK (Kurdistan Workers Party) “are all the same poison. They are the same blood-sucking vampires”.
Really? Who, in heaven’s name accepted his funding of the Mosque and invited him? I hope it was someone who knew nothing about Turkey.
Few people are aware that we, the British taxpayers, are paying for fanciful extradition proceedings in the courts of our own country, proceedings instigated by the Turkish State against Turkish refugees. Courtesy of the Home Office and the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS), innocent Turkish refugees can spend anxious and months waiting for court hearings and the opportunity to defend themselves, at great financial and emotional cost, against ludicrous accusations based on ‘information’ from Turkey in support of extradition. Bear in mind this charade is taking place at a time when our judicial system is creaking at the seams with the CPS and courts overloaded and accused waiting up to three years from arrest to trial.
What is going on? Well, Turkey is not just the Bosporus and beautiful historic Istanbul or booming Bodrum, discos and jolly holidays by an azure sea. After the military coup in 2016, Turkey under the authoritarian rule of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan became a police state.
Within four days of the failed coup Erdoğan sacked 110 generals and admirals. Some 650 of the country’s military officers were dismissed. Such swift and comprehensive action must have been pre-planned, the coup acting as pretext and trigger. To date about 150,000 people, many of them police, judges, university teachers, and businessmen, have been arrested and 78,000 so far charged. Turkey leads the world in imprisoning journalists. The once powerful, national Gulen movement, Hizmet, (Service), and the Kurds, as indicated in Erdoğan’s Cambridge speech, have borne the brunt of repression. Extradition requests to the UK, implemented by the Home Office and CPS, the Red Notices, have turned into long-range forms of punishment and intimidation.
Britain treads carefully. The Times Turkey correspondent, Hannan Lucinda Smith, in her new book, Erdoğan Rising: The Battle for the Soul of Turkey, describes the importance of Turkey for the UK. In March 2016 Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu and the EU agreed that six billion Euros would be provided for the three million Syrian refugees now within Turkey. In addition, for each Syrian refugee returned to Turkey from Greece, one refugee would be resettled in an EU country. Turkish citizens were promised visa-free access to the Schengen countries – to which Britain does not belong. That was a deal that might have caught public attention. It was only in May 2016, just prior to the Referendum, that Gove/Johnson authorised a poster saying that a REMAIN vote would open the door to 76 million Turks, this at a time when Erdoğan was on the point of getting rid of Davutoğlu and abandoning negotiations to join the EU. There had never been any chance that the EU would let an unreformed Turkey into the club; accession to the EU required unanimous assent from member states which, of course, included Britain.
Business links with Turkey are important to both economies. Bilateral trade with Turkey amounts to $20 billion annually. Erdoğan adopted the Blair/Brown public-private partnership model for infrastructural development. PPI contracts now fund major projects such as the newly opened Istanbul airport. British companies stand to earn $2.5 billion from Erdoğan’s plans to build six new hospitals.
Erdoğan is a consummate, populist, leader, religiously a pious moderate in the Muslim Brotherhood mould, complex and ruthless, hated by secular urban dwellers and adored by the rural poor of Anatolia. Lucinda Smith describes his rise to power and how he skilfully plays contending forces off against each other. He is currently pivoting towards Russia.
While deploying economic strategies derived from the West, Erdoğan’s ambitions lie on the Ottoman east side of the Bosporus, in the Muslim world, where he seeks pre-eminence. Like all populists he has divided his country, in this instance between secular Kemalists (followers of Atatürk, founder of modern Turkey) versus those committed to Islam. He became Prime Minister in 2003 and has been President since 2014. He is well past the critical ten years when power becomes an addiction for national leaders, a kind of political dementia sets in, and bad things happen.
Turkey’s borders with Georgia, Armenia, Iran and Iraq, its Black Sea ports providing short sea routes to Ukraine and Russia, make it in geopolitical terms a pivotal country. Istanbul/Constantinople has long been called the bridge between Asia and Europe; until the end of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey’s geopolitical direction historically has been, and remains, of geopolitical importance. All this would justify Britain treading carefully. Yet how can any informed person believe that Turkish political refugees extradited from Britain on blatantly political grounds would get a fair trial in a Turkish court. Are decisions taken by our Crown Prosecution Service and Home Office to begin extradition hearings against Turkish refugees, rather than dismiss them, motivated by foreign policy considerations rather than conscientious application of the Law? Or is an overloaded system simply making egregious mistakes?
One thing is sure. If the values motivating our foreign policy are deemed to be of no importance at all in considering and debating the selection and decisions of our Prime Ministers, we risk becoming complicit in Turkey’s violation of human rights.