UK lawmakers support strategic ties with Turkey, raise human rights issues

British Prime Minister David Cameron (R) and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during a meeting in 10 Downing Street, in London, on March 31, 2011. The UK House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee supported the government’s policy of seeking closer ties with Turkey. (Photo: EPA)

A UK parliamentary committee has given its blessings to the government’s policy of supporting Turkish membership in the European Union and establishing a strategic partnership with Turkey, but highlighted concerns about human rights abuses that it said make it difficult for the UK to advocate closer links with and EU membership for Ankara.


“Turkey possesses assets, characteristics and influence that potentially add value to UK foreign policy,”  the House of Commons’ Foreign Affairs Committee said in a report assessing UK ties with Turkey and Turkey’s regional role. “It is also a rising regional economic power with which there is significant potential to expand the UK’s economic and commercial relations, although the competitiveness of the market should not be underestimated,” the report said of Turkey.

The British government is thus “right to continue to support Turkey’s accession to the EU” and “to be seeking to strengthen the UK’s relations with Turkey, as a ‘strategic partner’ for the UK.” But Turkey’s human rights record remains a problem for the strategic partnership with the UK and for Turkey’s EU accession process, the report warned, highlighting problems in regard to freedom of the press in particular.

“Shortcomings in the Turkish justice system are damaging Turkey’s international reputation and leading to human rights abuses, in ways that make it harder to advocate close UK-Turkey relations and Turkey’s EU membership. The current climate in Turkey is limiting freedom of expression and the media,” it said.

The British government is a staunch supporter of Turkish membership in the EU but the process has come to a virtual halt amid disputes over Cyprus and reluctance in some European states to welcome Turkey as a member.

During a visit to Turkey in July 2010, British Premier David Cameron accused France and Germany, the two EU heavyweights that are opposed to Turkish membership, of double standards for expecting Ankara to guard Europe’s borders as a NATO member while closing the door to EU membership.

The Foreign Affairs Committee report said the government’s pro-Turkish membership position is justified, but said there should be restrictions on the right to free movement from Turkey to the UK after any accession by Turkey to the EU. “Turkey’s accession would be likely to boost the EU’s economic growth and international weight,” the report said, but lamented that the EU accession process is “effectively hostage to the Cyprus dispute.”

“Neither Turkey nor the EU is likely formally to suspend or abandon the accession process in the foreseeable future. However, by undermining the force of EU leverage, the stalemate in the accession talks is having consequences in Turkey that are detrimental to UK objectives there, as well as to Turkish citizens looking to the EU as an anchor for liberalizing domestic reforms. This is especially regrettable at a time when Turkish democracy may be in a critical phase,” it said.

By helping to create uncertainty over the timing, if not the fact, of Turkey’s EU accession, the stalemate is also discouraging both the EU and Turkey from starting to address some of the most difficult issues that would be involved in Turkey’s EU membership.

Middle East role and visa

The UK lawmakers also dismissed suggestions that Turkey is moving away from the West by implementing a new, more assertive foreign policy that seeks closer links with its Middle Eastern neighbors.

“We have encountered no evidence that Turkey has made an overarching foreign policy re-alignment away from the West,” it said. “The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) should not underestimate the extent to which the increased independence and regional focus of Turkish foreign policy may generate differences between Turkish and UK perspectives and policies. However, as long as its foreign policy efforts are directed towards the same ultimate goals, Turkey may add value as a foreign policy partner precisely because it is distinct from the UK.”

It further said that the Arab Spring protests across the Middle East and North Africa have brought Turkey closer to its Western allies, including the UK, “demonstrating the utility of Ankara’s strong relations with the Arab League.”

“Turkey has a welcome influence in the Middle East and North Africa as an example of a predominantly Muslim secular democracy, albeit one that remains a ‘work in progress’,” the report said.

The committee also criticized the British government’s visa policy towards Turkey, saying it remains an obstacle for closer links with Turkey, calling on the Foreign Office to explore ways to make it easier for Turkish nationals to obtain British visas, particularly for frequent visitors.

Source: Today’s Zaman