ANALYSIS - Why the UK sees Turkey as a crucial post-Brexit ally
Compared to other powerful Western states, the UK is clearly the closest and most receptive ally of Turkey, which creates the framework for them to establish an even stronger alliance
*The writer is a researcher and journalist focusing on conflict and geopolitics in the Middle East and North Africa, primarily related to the Gulf region.
After the United Kingdom’s transitional period to leave the European Union (EU) officially concluded on Jan. 1 after a year of tense negotiations, Boris Johnson’s Conservative government managed to forge a trade deal with the EU. While the deal is considered relatively favorable considering the past financial risks of a no-deal Brexit, and the UK still retains some economic benefits with the EU, Britain has still sought to advance its trade ties beyond Europe.
As the UK has looked towards its traditional non-EU allies, one new stronger ally that has stood out is Turkey, with London seeking stronger economic ties with Ankara. Both countries agreed on a historic trade deal on Dec. 29, prior to the UK’s formal withdrawal from the EU, which Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan called Turkey’s most important trade deal since its 1995 Customs Union with the EU.
“God willing, we are entering a new phase in which both Turkey and the UK will benefit,” President Erdogan said.
Prior to the deal, UK Trade Secretary Liz Truss said she hoped to pursue “tariff-free trading arrangements and will help support our trading relationship,” adding that the upcoming deal would “provide certainty for thousands of jobs across the UK in the manufacturing, automotive and steel industries.”
The deal secures existing trade ties which were worth $25.2 billion USD in 2019, including Turkey’s exports to the UK — which are mostly precious metals, vehicles, textiles, and electrical equipment. Britain is Turkey’s second-largest export partner, after Germany.
As two previously close allies, the deal benefits their trade ties, as it eliminates tariffs on exports and therefore prevents financial losses on them.
Such an agreement had long been anticipated. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said in early July last year that a UK-Turkey trade deal was “very close”, during a visit to London to meet his counterpart, Dominic Raab.
It also increases the prospect of Turkey and the UK forging even stronger economic ties during the upcoming decade. From an economic perspective, securing this deal highly benefits Britain, due to Turkey’s position as a strong economy among its non-EU allies.
The two countries have developed strong relations in the last decade, particularly as the UK backed Turkey’s efforts in the fight against the so-called Islamic State (Daesh). Britain also offered Turkey its sympathy after the foiled coup attempt in 2016, which it criticized as an “attack against Turkey’s democracy”, while other EU states did not offer such support.
Amid the UK’s ascent away from the EU since the 2016 Brexit referendum, it has diverted from other EU member states’ stance. For instance, as France and Germany halted arms sales to Turkey following the counter-terrorism Operation Peace Spring in 2019 against the PKK-linked YPG faction in northern Syria, the UK continued its weapons supplies, and did not criticize Turkey as other countries did.
Moreover, France developed a more antagonistic foreign policy towards Turkey, particularly due to differences in the Eastern Mediterranean and Libya’s conflict — as Ankara aided the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) against the Paris-backed warlord Khalifa Haftar’s putsch.
In fact, France withdrew from a NATO naval mission along the Eastern Mediterranean last July — an initiative that was also designed to secure the arms embargo on Libya. Paris was largely motivated by undermining Turkey after it had effectively hindered its geopolitical ambitions.
Clearly, while the UK’s withdrawal from the EU enables it to align itself closer with Turkey, other NATO countries have tried to use NATO as a weapon to pressure Turkey. Even Donald Trump previously imposed sanctions on Turkey, while President-elect Joe Biden made comments in his presidential campaign that he would consider supporting the opposition in Turkey. This understandably caused outrage in Ankara, with the Turkish government slamming Biden’s comments as “interventionist”.
Compared to other powerful Western states, the UK is clearly the closest and most receptive ally of Turkey, which creates the framework for them to establish an even stronger alliance.
Meanwhile, as Boris Johnson’s government promoted the narrative of a post-Brexit Britain achieving a more independent foreign policy, free from any EU constraints, Turkey would be further seen as a convenient ally, given its geostrategic importance near Europe, the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, the Levant and the wider Middle East.
The UK may look to use this to maintain its desired regional influence. Boris Johnson’s government has already sought to uphold its foreign policy influence through other traditional allies, such as Bahrain, where it has a key naval base that helps Britain project military influence in the Middle East. Securing a partnership with Turkey would give Britain further leverage to maintain influence in these regions.
This could also lead to greater cooperation between Ankara and London in the Eastern Mediterranean. Britain may see Turkey as a useful ally in this endeavor, as it may seek to control and exert influence over shipping lanes through the Suez Canal. This is part of Britain’s desire to revive some of the geopolitical control it had in the past, particularly in the Levant and Egypt, while it still also hosts a military presence in [the island of] Cyprus.
It could create an opportunity for further proactive foreign policy decision-making. For instance, though Britain has taken a more withdrawn position in the conflict in Libya, it has more potential to work with Turkey, which has backed the internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA). Therefore, this could create a more effective partnership should London and Ankara work together and could help further advance peace in that country. This is one example of potentially positive foreign policy collaboration between the two countries.
However, a post-Brexit Britain will likely play a more reserved foreign policy role for the time being, as shown by its cutting off foreign aid last November. Yet its deals with both Turkey and the EU show that it can effectively play a balancing act between the two. Additionally, Brexit has been a catalyst for stronger ties between Turkey and Britain and should further boost their relations for years to come, making Ankara even more of a strategic and economically important ally for London.
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