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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

Erdogan takes his election campaign to London

The president's trip came just weeks before Turkey's presidential election

British Prime Minister Theresa May listens to President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the start of their meeting at 10 Downing Street on May 15, 2018 in London, England. 
British Prime Minister Theresa May listens to President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the start of their meeting at 10 Downing Street on May 15, 2018 in London, England. 

At the end of a three day visit to the UK, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in no doubt that Turkey is a friend that Britain, and indeed Europe, cannot afford to lose.

A controversial deal signed in 2016 bought a near complete halt to the flow of refugees crossing into Europe. Mr Erdogan has threatened to re-open those routes. With Turkey home to 2.5 million refugees, Europe quivers at the prospect.

Turkey also represents the sort of trade partner that Brexit visionaries hope will galvanise the country’s economy independently of the EU.

Magdalena Kirchner, a fellow at the Istanbul Policy Centre, said the visit by Mr Erdogan can be seen in the light of shifting relations between the UK and Turkey. “In the past UK-Turkey relations were mostly managed through NATO and the UK, Brexit and the de facto standstill of Turkey's accession process opened a new debate on both sides about rebranding their relations – especially with regard to economic and security cooperation"

Turkish trade with the UK is already estimated at $25 billion, optimists hope it could rise to $30 billion when the UK leaves the EU.

That trade extends to the arms trade, with UK companies playing vital roles in one scheme that has become emblematic of Mr Erdogan’s efforts to increase Turkey’s presence on the world stage. Following the signing of a £100 million (dh495.8 million) contract last year in Ankara, British firm BAE Systems have become critical to the engineering of the TAI TFX fighter jet, a pet project of Mr Erdogan’s to create the first Turkish fighter jet. Another British firm, Rolls Royce, will build the engines.

But the Turkish leader’s trip was not without controversy. Mr Erdogan’s visit to Downing Street was met with protests from the UK’s Kurdish diaspora who shouted "he’s killing humans" and others saying his visit made them feel "physically sick". Protesters also made themselves audible throughout his address at foreign policy think tank Chatham House.

Mr Erdogan has clamped down on dissent since an attempted coup in July 2016. More than 50,000 Turks have been arrested including academics, policemen, and hundreds of journalists.

A Downing Street spokesman vowed Prime Minister Theresa May would raise human rights issues during their meeting.

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A photo shoot between Mr Erdogan and footballers Mesut Ozil and İlkay Gündoğan, both Germans of Turkish descent, saw the stars criticised in Germany for being “manipulated” into participating in the president’s reelection campaign.

Ms Kirchener suggested that, for Mr Erdogan, the trip is just as much about domestic politics as it is foreign relations. “The meeting comes at a crucial time at home where voters could hold him accountable for the disastrous economic situation on June 24.

“High level visits and photo-ops with the Queen and international football stars can to a certain extent divert the attention of the public and portray him as the chief interlocutor with the West, politically and with regard to investors" she adds.

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