Boris Johnson seeks to mend fences in talks with Turkish leadership

UK foreign secretary avoids mention of lewd poem about Turkey’s president and pledges to support EU membership bid

The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, a former arch critic of the current Turkish leadership, sought to mend battered fences in a series of high level meetings on Tuesday, culminating in a pledge to be one of the strongest supporters of the country’s bid to become a member of the European Union.

Speaking at a joint news conference with his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Johnson also said Turkey and Britain stood together against terrorism.He said his Turkish hosts had not brought up the controversy caused by a lewd poem he composed in which he referred to the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, as a wanker, and described the issue as trivia.

He wrote the poem in response to an invitation from the Spectator magazine to its readers to send in rude limericks about Erdoğan in protest at a crackdown on free speech in Ankara.

Asked if he would apologise for the poem, Johnson avoided answering.

Çavuşoğlu warned that cooperating with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) in any potential assault against Islamic State in Raqqa would mean “putting Syria’s future at risk”.

He said that, contrary to US promises, at least 200 YPG members had not retreated from Manjib to the east of the Euphrates river, a demand Turkey made as it seeks to prevent the formation of a Kurdish state on its borders.

Boris Johnson with Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, his Turkish counterpart, at a joint news conference.
Boris Johnson with Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, his Turkish counterpart, at a joint news conference. Photograph: Adem Altan/AFP/Getty Images

The YPG is the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union party (PYD), which Turkey considers to be the Syrian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers’ party (PKK). Washington, however, sees the PYD and its militia as the best forces fighting Isis on the ground in Syria.

Çavuşoğlu also said anti-Isis coalition members lacked a “results-oriented strategy”, leading to mistakes such as reliance on “terror organisations”.

Johnson tried to keep the focus on his belief that the UK was not leaving Europe, but only the EU. He said he believed Britain could sign “a jumbo-sized trade deal” with Turkey outside the EU.

At an earlier press briefing on Monday ahead of a meeting with Turkey’s EU affairs minister, Ömer Çelik, Johnson said: “We are happy in the United Kingdom to be one of the biggest recipients of Turkish goods. I am certainly the proud possessor of a beautiful, very well-functioning Turkish washing machine, like so many other people in my country.”

It was Johnson’s first visit to Turkey since the EU referendum, when he repeatedly raised the threat of Turkish migrants flooding into the UK if Britain remained a member of the EU.

In an earlier guise Johnson had been an enthusiastic supporter of Turkey’s EU membership, so his call for the union to welcome Ankara is a reversion to his previous stance. His influence over his EU partners in persuading them of the merits of Turkey’s membership may be limited, given that the UK is leaving the union as a result of the campaign he helped to lead.

Clean slate: Boris Johnson the ‘proud possessor’ of a Turkish washing machine.

Çelik said Turkey respected the British decision to leave the bloc but criticised the “anti-Turkish rhetoric” that emerged during the campaign.“We have to close this ugly parenthesis and look to the future,” he said.

Çelik also joked abouthe and Johnson having Ottoman ancestry. “We are both Ottomans. I had told him that it was important to pay visits to countries in which you have friends. He kept his promise. It means a great deal to us. The UK has always supported our EU membership bid,” he said.

Earlier on Monday at the start of his two-day visit, Johnson visited a refugee camp in Nizip, Gaziantep province, near Turkey’s border with Syria, and met exiled members of the Syrian opposition.

The trip is the highest level visit to Turkey by a British minister since the failed coup on 15 July, in which a rogue military faction tried to overthrow the Turkish government. The government claims the abortive coup was masterminded by an US-based Muslim cleric, Fethullah Gülen.

Johnson said the UK would cooperate with the Turkish authorities to get to the bottom of any Gülenist links in the UK. He said “Gülenism and the way that they act and the way they behave is very foreign to us. We are trying to learn as much as we can from our Turkish friends exactly what this organisations is, how it behaves, how it dictates an agenda.”

Boris Johnson is surrounded by Turkish officials during his visit to the Syrian refugee camp in Nizip, Gaziantep province.
Boris Johnson visits a Syrian refugee camp in Nizip, Gaziantep province. Photograph: Ali Ihsan Ozturk/AP

There were aspects of a cult to Gülenism, he said.

He said: “Plainly what happened in July was deeply violent, deeply anti-democratic, deeply sinister and it was totally right that it was crushed.”

Johnson referred to his great-grandfather, who was an opposition figure in the late Ottoman period. Ali Kemal was a journalist and politician who was stoned to death and hung from a tree during the Turkish war of independence. Johnson also claimed his great-uncle had been a former foreign minister.

Johnson said he had “met some of my relatives” in the last 24 hours. A number of people from Johnson’s ancestral home of Kalfat in central Anatolia have lauded his links with Turkey.

“We will sacrifice many sheep in Boris’s honour. We will repave our roads, repaint our buildings. We will give him the complete red carpet treatment if he visits his ancestral village,” Adem Karaağaç, the village headman, told the magazine Middle East Eye.


Patrick Wintour Diplomatic editor

The GuardianTramp

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