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Friday, 30 November 2018

British-Turkish relations after Brexit: A strategic partnership?

For the final SEESOX seminar of the 2018 Michaelmas term Simon Wardman (King’s College, London and Istanbul Policy Centre) considered how UK-Turkish relationships would evolve after Brexit; Yaprak Gürsoy (Aston University) acted as discussant.

Simon Wardman’s presentation was based on his work at the Istanbul Policy Centre, almost the last independent think-tank in Turkey. He stressed that he had not experienced any interference in his work. He began by defining “strategic partnership”—this is a specific term, deriving from management studies, involving sharing of resources, and with the aim of improving profitability of both partners. It has been used in international relations since the end of the Cold War, for instance as regards the EU and China. The term as regards UK-Turkish relations was first used by Gordon Brown; Cameron also made mention of it, considering Turkey to be “Europe’s BRIC”, and a model democratic Islamic state.

After 2013 however “the bubble burst”. The IMF loan, under which Turkey had made a range of democratic reforms, was paid off. There were large scale investigations into corruption, which the government blamed on Gulen. Protests in Istanbul over the redevelopment of a park were broken up with force. The South East degenerated back into violence with the ending of the PKK ceasefire and the suppression of the Kurdish political party. On the economic front, the government sought to assert increasing control, for instance to reduce the independence of the central bank by challenging its interest rate policy. All these factors intensified after the 2016 attempted coup.
Meanwhile, from 2016 the UK has needed to look for strategic alliances in view of the prospect of Brexit. Common values can be ruled out as a basis for such a relationship. Simon Wardman identified seven objectives for the UK in seeking a strategic partnership: 1. Counter Russia; 2. Terrorism; 3. Anarchy in the Middle East, affecting oil; 4. Securing Britain’s economic future; 5. Uncertainty due to loss of US global leadership; 6. Cyberwarfare; 7. Chinese belligerency. On most of these Turkey’s role is ambiguous—for instance it has bought S-400 missiles from Russia, which are incompatible with NATO systems. His view was that it would therefore be a mistake for the UK to seek to have a strategic alliance with Turkey. Nevertheless, it should seek to enhance trade relations.

Yaprak Gursoy endorsed some of Simon’s points, but pointed out it is a normative analysis so would not be “wrong”. She suggested however that UK-Turkish bilateral relations are of limited importance. From the perspective of liberal Turkish citizens, there is little the UK can do to influence Turkey’s policies. Turkey will not for instance give up its leverage with Russia, since there is little that the UK can do to help the Kurds. The UK has little leverage, and attempted involvement may be counter-productive. Turkey has turned to Russia in part because of rebuffs from the US and EU. It is nevertheless worthwhile to keep the dialogue going—this enables for instance continued exchanges of academics.

Yaprak doubted whether it would be easy to enhance UK trade with Turkey. Turkey is in a customs union with the EU, and therefore has limited room to negotiate a separate advantageous agreement with the UK: if the UK leaves the customs union this is likely therefore to depress bilateral trade. Case-by-case, there may be areas for cooperation, e.g. on security.

Charles Enoch (Director, PEFM Oxford, St Antony's College)

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