Brace for Boris II

By Harriet Fildes and Fatih Resul Kilinc

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, famous for insulting countries indiscriminately and known affectionately as Britain’s Trump, arrived in Ankara this week for his first official visit.

Source: Middle East Monitor. Mevlut Cavusoglu and Boris Johnson meet in Ankara.

Source: Middle East Monitor. Mevlut Cavusoglu and Boris Johnson meet in Ankara.

The visit was ostensibly to show UK solidarity with the Turkish government, which was severely shaken by an attempted military coup in July 2016, as well as to bolster soured diplomatic relations following the Brexit campaign and Johnson’s insulting poem about the Turkish president.

Boris Johnson’s first official state visit therefore comes on the tail end of various controversies between the new foreign secretary and Turkey.

His winning poem from conservative British magazine The Spectator’s Erdoğan Offensive Poetry competition caused understandable hostility in Turkey from across the political spectrum.

Relying on xenophobic and racist tropes, the poem was also criticised for detracting from discussions on Turkey’s serious political and human rights concerns. According to the official government sources however, the poem controversy did not occupy the agenda.

The visit aimed at smoothing out previous diplomatic blunders in a series of high-level meetings. Boris met with Ömer Çelik, the minister for EU affairs, and discussed the importance of Turkish-British relations in the spheres of trade and tourism following Britain’s departure from the EU, asking specifically for a “huge” free trade deal with Turkey.

This may be a vital deal for the UK and Turkey to keep their economies stable as they increasingly distance themselves from the EU, a process which will likely harm their respective economies due to their integration with the EU market.

Talks with Turkish foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu also covered terrorism and the Syrian civil war. Çavuşoğlu reiterated Turkey’s stance on Kurdish fighters in Syria to his British counterpart, asserting that any involvement of the People’s Protection Units (YPG) in the Raqqa operation would be detrimental to the future of Syria.

Johnson and his delegation, visited a refugee camp in Gaziantep, close to the Syrian border in Turkey’s predominantly Kurdish south east. Any hopes that the foreign secretary would discuss human rights issues in the south east and treatment of prisoners across the country during the state of emergency, in place since the failed July 15 coup attempt, were quickly dashed however.

Relations between the two countries have been tense since Boris Johnson’s Brexit campaign. Based largely on anti-immigration sentiments with racist undertones, the campaign frequently cited the threat of Turkey’s accession bid and immigration as a reason to leave the EU, leading the bandwagon on anti-Turkish and Islamophobic sentiments in the UK.

Ironically given Turkey’s role in the Brexit campaign, Turkish politicians exuded an almost uniquely diplomatic reaction to Johnson’s appointment as foreign secretary, unlike many US and European officials. Turkish PM Binali Yıldırım said that: “God willing, he will not make such mistakes from now on and he will endeavour to win the hearts of Turks.”

True to form, and almost on par with Trump’s empty rhetorics, Johnson overtly focussed on banalities such as his own Turkish-made washing-machine when discussing bilateral trade “I am certainly the proud possessor of a beautiful, very well-functioning Turkish washing machine,” he said.

The two-day visit concluded with Johnson pledging to assist Turkey “in any way” in its admission bid to the EU. Given his leading role in fostering anti-Turkish sentiments during the Brexit campaign however, such statements ring hollow.

Johnson had previously been an enthusiastic supporter of Turkey’s EU bid, and his return to this stance has been read positively by Turkish officials. However with mixed and often disbelieving responses to Boris’ comments from EU officials, Britain’s ability to assist Turkey in this matter and legitimacy as a European power has been called into question.


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