Theresa May has arrived in Turkey on a mission to pave the way for trade deals after Britain leaves the European Union.
As the prime minister arrived in Ankara on Saturday, Downing Street announced that the UK and Turkey had agreed to set up a joint working group to carry out the groundwork for a bilateral deal.
On her one-day visit, May was set for talks with the country’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and prime minister, Binali Yıldırım.
May’s arrival, straight from her White House meeting with President Donald Trump, comes at a tense political time. Turkey has threatened to tear up a migration agreement with Greece because of a row over the latter’s refusal to extradite Turkish troops allegedly involved in last year’s botched coup.
The prime minister arrived at the presidential palace for her meeting with Erdogan to find her image dominating television screens, which were showing her visit to Washington DC.
As she sat down to begin talks, the Turkish president pointed out the footage on a huge TV screen. “It was well covered in Turkey,” an aide to the president explained, as May laughed in surprise.
Erdoğan asked how the weather in Ankara – currently under a light coating of snow – compared with Washington’s. “Here is colder,” she replied.
Before the meeting, May visited the tomb of Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the modern Turkish republic.
Dressed in black, the prime minister bowed her head in respect after laying a large red and white wreath – the colours of Turkey’s flag – before Atatürk’s sarcophagus inside the imposing mausoleum on a hill in the centre of Ankara.
May then signed the visitors’ book, beneath the message: “It is a great honour to visit this special place of remembrance to the founding father of modern Turkey. Let us together renew our efforts to fulfil Atatürk’s vision of peace at home and peace in the world.”
May had no particular plans to raise human rights concerns with Erdoğan, under whom thousands of journalists and political critics have been jailed in a crackdown on opponents that intensified after the attempted coup.
A Downing Street spokeswoman said: “She thinks engagement is important. There are a range of issues [that] will likely come up in their talks. I don’t think there are any issues that the prime minister is afraid to raise.”
She said there was no plan to challenge Erdoğan about the increasingly authoritarian turn of his administration. “On the issues of freedom of the press and human rights, if they come up, she will state her view, which is unchanged. She has been clear about the importance of press freedom and human rights.”
Pressed on whether May would criticise the crackdown, the spokeswoman said: “We have already expressed our strong support for Turkey’s democracy and institutions following the coup – but we have also been clear that we urge Turkey to ensure that their response is proportionate, justified and in line with international human rights obligations.”
More than 120,000 police, civil servants and academics were suspended or dismissed after July’s failed coup, though thousands were later reinstated. Many media organisations were also shut down.
While in the US, May gave a foreign policy speech stressing the responsibility of the UK and the US to defend the values of liberty and human rights.
“We must never cease to proclaim in fearless tones the great principles of freedom and the rights of man which are the joint inheritance of the English-speaking world,” she said.
Barristers’ leaders and the Bar Human Rights Committee (BHRC) urged the prime minister to highlight threats to the rule of law. More than 3,400 Turkish judges and prosecutors have been dismissed in the past six months.
“While we expect you to express your condolences to the Turkish people in relation to the brutal attacks by terrorists in Turkey, we also urge you to express the opinion that the battle against terrorism in Turkey, and indeed everywhere, is most effectively conducted while fully upholding human rights, as well as the rule of law,” they said in an open letter signed by Kirsty Brimelow QC, chair of the BHRC, and Andrew Langdon QC, chair of the bar in England and Wales.
“As a signatory to the European convention on human rights, Turkey must return to the presumption of innocence, individuality of criminal responsibility and punishment, the principle of no punishment without law, non-retroactivity of criminal law, legal certainty, an independent and impartial judiciary and the right to an effective defence under conditions of equality of arms.”
The letter criticised the imprisonment of elected representatives, the suppression of free speech and the ongoing violence against south-east Turkey’s Kurdish minority, and described the government’s actions as “an egregious attack on democracy itself”.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Tim Farron, criticised the prime minister’s decision to seek strong trade links with the Turkish regime. “As Theresa May seeks trade deals with ever more unsavoury leaders, she ignores the simple point that the most successful countries around the world respect human rights – economies flourish in free societies,” he said.
“There are tens of thousands of people in Turkish jails without fair trial, who in many cases have committed no crime other than daring to disagree with President Erdoğan. Theresa May should address this as a priority in her meeting today.
“Yes, the prime minister should seek to promote British trade, but at this time her priority should be to secure a long-term trade deal with our European neighbours by fighting to stay in the single market.”