The first month of 2017 was a tumultuous one for global politics— from the Brexit judicial decision to the inauguration of US President Donald J. Trump. One particularly surprising development was the materialisation of a £100 million defence deal between the United Kingdom and Turkey. These funds will help Turkey build fighter jets and will more broadly foster military collaboration between the two countries. This agreement is an opportunity for Theresa May to create a firm trade alliance with Turkey for the United Kingdom after Article 50 is triggered. The Prime Minister said that: ‘Britain is a great, global, trading nation and that we are open for business.’ By creating trade agreements, May is able to make a more solid argument for a strong, independent Britain and Northern Ireland post-Brexit. May additionally showed her support for Turkey’s government following last summer’s coup, saying she was ‘proud that the UK stood with you on 15 July last year in defence of democracy and now it is important that Turkey sustains that democracy by maintaining the rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations as the government has undertaken to do.’
In addition to the £100 million, the deal allows BAE Systems and Turkish Aerospace Industries to jointly develop the TF-X Turkish fighter programme. The Chief Executive of BAE Systems, Ian King, claimed that the deal would help strengthen the UK’s defence partnership with Turkey. ‘It will also pave the way’ he stated, ‘for a deeper defence partnership and could effectively make the UK Turkey’s partner of choice, positioning it as a key aerospace technology exporter to Turkey […] the wider programme could see the UK win contracts to provide engines, weapons, radars and sensors.’ Within the next 20 years, the deal is supposed to produce 250 high-performing aircraft. This increase in production is also beneficial for jobs in the aviation industry across the United Kingdom. Turkey currently depends on US F15 jets and German aviation technology. This deal will give the United Kingdom greater leverage to impact Turkish defence strategy as well.
Turkey and the United Kingdom share a historically strong trading relationship as the UK is the second largest importer of Turkish goods, importing around $10.6 billion USD of goods annually. This trade largely comprises of machinery and transport goods, chemicals, and manufactured goods. Talks surrounding the most recent defence deal were initiated earlier in 2016 but stalled in the months following the coup. Theresa May and her Turkish counterpart, Binali Yildirim, have now facilitated the deal in the wake of nearly £300 million in arms trade with Turkey since 2015, and an additional nearly £50 million after the coup last summer. The defence deal seems to satisfy both British and Turkish ambitions— strengthening May’s Brexit position and reaffirming the objectives of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ‘to increase annual trade with Britain to $20 billion – up from $15.6 billion now.’
During the same trip, Theresa May discussed Turkey’s human rights violations with President Erdogan. According to Amnesty International, thousands were imprisoned after the coup without right to fair trial along with a number of accusations of torture. The British Prime Minister later said that the defence deal and Turkey’s human rights violations were ‘separate issues. Turkey is an important NATO partner, so our cooperation on both security and defence is in line with that.’ The UK Director of Amnesty International stated that ‘this visit [was] a vital opportunity for Theresa May to ask some probing questions. Human rights abuses during the attempted coup absolutely must be investigated and their perpetrators brought to justice.’ The UK director continued by listing specific evidence of human rights violations after the coup in the summer. This evidence includes proof of systematic torture and the repeal of rights given to those that were detained without trial by Erdogan’s executive decrees. Still, in February, ‘more than 40,000 people have been remanded in pre-trial detention since the coup attempt, and more than 90,000 civil servants have been summarily suspended or dismissed from their jobs.’ Those remaining in pre-trial detention include possibly more than one hundred members of the media and media outlets that have been closed as a punitive measure to prevent freedom of the press and freedom of expression.
May claimed that Turkey and the United Kingdom were some of the ‘oldest friends’ and that she hoped to continue to bolster that relationship. She suggested that much more could be done to build on that diplomatic partnership, and that the two countries would create a joint working group to arrange for trade relations after Brexit. David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, said that he hoped for a ‘round of global trade deals’ to be ‘fully negotiated’ within one to two years and that would come into effect once Brexit was completed. The government recently released its full Brexit plans in a White Paper on the 2 February, which will begin by triggering Article 50.
Theresa May sounded optimistic about the trade prospects with Turkey after Brexit. In a joint press conference, May said: ‘You mentioned, Mr President, the opportunities for enhancing the trade between our two countries. And we’ve discussed that. And we both want to build on our existing links. And I believe that doing so will be to the benefit of both our countries and for the prosperity of both our nations.’ She later described the talks as ‘very fruitful.’ The Turkish President said that ‘The UK and Turkey will enjoy a very different nature and a very different position’ after Brexit.
In addition to the defence deal, post-Brexit trade, and human rights violations, the United Kingdom’s Prime Minister and the Turkish President also conversed about regional issues and security. If this defence deal is successful, and the UK’s trade with Turkey does increase, the UK will be in a much better position to negotiate the terms of Brexit in its favour. The strong relationship between the UK and Turkey will remain important as they continue as partners in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria.