Saturday, 27 February 2021


A perennial problem for British and European politicians has been the question of relations with Turkey. A candidate for membership of the European Union (EU) since 1987, Turkey has gone from being the budding pin-up boy of Islamic democracy, to a disgruntled neighbour which western countries cannot necessarily do without, but cannot do much with either.  The emergence of Turkey as an issue in the Brexit referendum, and its occasional use as a rhetorical device by angry Remainers since, is characteristic of the emotive rhetoric that has flared since 2016. In using Turkey as a stick with which to dismiss Leave voters as ill-informed conspiracists, prejudiced, or indeed both, Remain activists showed themselves not just to be out of step with public opinion, but dangerously ill-informed themselves.

Whilst European conservatives had often doubted the wisdom of Turkish accession, in Britain there were historically few such reservations among political elites. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy took the view that a country with 98% of its land mass outside Europe, and a cultural basis rooted in an Islam that has never fully embraced liberal democracy, was suitable only for some form of associative agreement, rather than EU membership. Keeping out a country with a bigger population than any existing member state, would also ensure that the EU’s delicate political balances, and Franco-German dominance, endured.

Perhaps seeing an opportunity to upset the Paris-Bonn/Berlin axis, Britain expressed fewer concerns, and it is unlikely the United Kingdom (UK) would have ever vetoed Ankara’s accession. All three of Britain’s main parties – Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – officially supported Turkey’s EU accession. Among their number was even a youthful Boris Johnson and then Prime Minister David Cameron. From 2013-2018 the Conservatives managed to join with Erdogan’s party, the Islamist AKP, in an international grouping of like-minded parties, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists. In the last declaration of the Cameron government’s position, just before the referendum, David Liddington, the then Minister of State for Europe, stated ‘The UK supports Turkey’s EU accession process, which remains the most effective mechanism for continuing reform in Turkey. Turkey’s accession itself is not on the cards for many years to come.’

This was diplomatic guff. By 2016, the most discernible reform in Turkey was a process the AKP and its Islamist partners had been spearheading since 2002, at first gradually then aggressively as Erdogan sought the establishment of a ‘pious generation’. The crushing of the 2013 Gezi Park protests was part of a broader onslaught which included the repression of journalists, academics, Kurdish representatives and opponents of the AKP’s stripe of Islamism.  Despite all this, Britain continued to formally support Turkey’s membership application. During the referendum campaign, when Vote Leave’s prediction of eventual Turkish membership of the EU was dismissed as outlandish, or a position rooted in racism, there was considerable embarrassment when screenshots from the British embassy in Ankara illustrated that part of the embassy’s duties was to deploy British civil servants to assist Turkish accession. Our vote to Leave the European Union brought an end to this activity once and for all.

If a shift has occurred in attitudes towards Turkey in recent years, it has been a recognition on the European continent that Erdogan, and the organisational structures he deploys, are authoritarian. Countries working to improve the integration of sizeable Turkish minorities, especially Germany, have become exasperated by the realisation that Ankara has a different agenda, rooted in maintaining difference. Whilst liberal opinion in Britain became fixated complaining that the Leave campaign had cheated by running ‘fake news’ conspiracy theories Turkey would join the EU, the Austrian, Dutch, German and Swiss governments were wrestling with more immediate issues. All objected to or moved against pro-AKP rallies  on their territory. With Turkey’s President banned from political campaigning in Germany, the wily Erdogan simply flew to the UK, to be pictured with two German footballers of Turkish heritage, Ilkay Gundogan and Mesut Ozil. The German Football Association, which had once used Ozil as an example of the successful integration of minorities, was aghast.

Erdogan’s intentions are not merely to avoid the integration of Turkish minorities living in Europe, or to ensure they keep voting for his party. Aggressive intelligence operations against Turkish and Kurdish dissidents are now conducted on the soil of supposedly friendly countries (although Turkey remains a NATO member) and pro-government exile organisations, such as Milli Gorus in Germany, hold strongly anti-western, anti-democratic and anti-Semitic positions. The relationship between Ankara and Muslim Brotherhood related groups, across the world, is deepening and the Diyanet, Turkey’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, works tirelessly to maintain its interpretation of religious orthodoxy, at home and overseas. These developments have led analyst Lorenzo Vidino to conclude Turkey is ‘pursuing interests and promoting views within Muslim communities that are on a collision course with those of European governments.’

Through the good sense of those who voted to leave the EU in 2016, the UK is no longer encouraging the myth that future political and economic integration with Turkey is desirable or possible. Rather than wasting time arguing about whether it was ever a likely candidate for EU accession, debate now needs to move to the next level. Is it wise to continue in a military alliance, NATO, with Turkey? The strategic importance of Turkey is such that in military terms, its departure would be a grievous blow to an alliance that has worked successfully, for so long. Moscow would be delighted at such a development. There are also contrary arguments – most importantly that the Erdogan project is past its peak. The 2019 election of an opposition mayor in a twice-run contest in Istanbul appeared a body blow for a leader without an obvious, capable successor. But if Erdogan has succeeded in rooting his authoritarian politico-religious beliefs in the country, does NATO wish to be tied to a country whose values are increasingly different in nature to its own?

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History will not be kind to the generation of politicians that have spent the last three years negotiating Britain’s departure from the European Union (EU). They have failed to find a political consensus at home or present a coherent Brexit strategy abroad. In stark contrast to the European Commission which has successfully managed the difficult task of maintaining unity amongst twenty-seven individual member states, two successive prime ministers have now struggled and failed to maintain party discipline or keep ministerial colleagues onside.

Recent reports that Philip Hammond, the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, led a group of ‘rebel’ Conservative parliamentarians to open a backchannel to EU Brexit negotiators has already added further pressure to the already fragile premiership of Boris Johnson. In a rare and quick rebuttal, the new prime minister called on EU leaders not to listen to ‘the very wrong messages’ from parliamentarians who want to stop Brexit.

The problem is that Mr Hammond is not alone. Over the last three years there has been a consistent carousel of British parliamentarians visiting Brussels and holding meetings with EU leaders in the hope of influencing the Brexit talks. Each of them shares a common view that they alone speak for the British public and it is their view on Brexit which should be considered above all others. 

There has been no shortage of private opinions and public advice given directly to the EU and its leaders throughout the duration of the United Kingdom (UK) negotiating a deal for its withdrawal. Nowhere has this been more evident than the actions of Tony Blair, a former British Prime Minister,  holding court in Paris where it is said that he regularly briefs Emmanuel Macron, the French President, on the best path towards ‘a second EU referendum and the UK voting to remain’. Another extraordinary example includes Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party, urging fellow Eurosceptic leaders (including Matteo Salvini, the Italian Deputy Prime Minister, and Viktor Orbán, the Hungarian Prime Minister) to block an extension to Article 50 that the then British prime minister was trying to negotiate in March.

This whirlwind of contradictory opinions makes it hard for even the most sympathetic of European leaders to take the UK’s negotiating position seriously, particularly given that Westminster remains in deadlock, the government of the day is without a working parliamentary majority, and Boris Johnson has decided to prorogue parliament in the hopes of preventing parliamentarians from frustrating the UK’s exit without a deal.

Britain’s current predicament, the ensuing diplomatic free-for-all, and continued confusion it has created…raises a broader and more serious question: who has a right to speak and negotiate on behalf of a sovereign nation?

Undoubtedly, the blame for the UK’s disadvantaged position in the Brexit negotiations can be laid at the feet of the previous two prime ministers: David Cameron who ensured there was no preparation in the event of a leave result and then promptly resigned, despite assuring the public he would stay no matter the outcome; and Theresa May who triggered Article 50 without a coherent negotiating strategy, called an early election that destroyed her parliamentary majority, and stubbornly resisted a cross-party agreement until the eleventh hour.

Britain’s current predicament, the ensuing diplomatic free-for-all, and continued confusion it has created both at home and abroad, raises a broader and more serious question: who has a right to speak and negotiate on behalf of a sovereign nation?

After all, the Ministerial Code states that when UK ministers hold meetings overseas with ministers or officials from another government with the aim to discuss their ministerial brief, they must ensure a private secretary, or a UK embassy official is present and that the Foreign Office is notified. This rule is designed to deter ministers from undertaking unofficial meetings, ensures that the British government is aware of all representations that are made by ministers on its behalf, and that a record is maintained of all diplomatic engagement with foreign governments. Much to her dismay, Priti Patel, the current Home Secretary and former Secretary for International Development, found out the consequences of breaking this rule when she was forced to resign from government in November 2017 when it came to light that she had secretly met with Israeli ministers.

Parliamentarians and private citizens on the other hand are not required to officially or publicly declare their meetings and private discussions with foreign governments and therein lies much of the current problem. Aside from the colossal task of negotiating a smooth exit from the EU, there are countless foreign policy crises involving British interests which require sensitive diplomacy and a coherent strategy. If this current ambiguity around private negotiations remains unresolved, these decisions will also face the risk of being up-ended or unduly influenced by the interventions of actors outside of the government’s control.

The United States (US) has long-recognised the diplomatic chaos that can occur as a result of private citizens conducting unauthorised negotiations with foreign governments it is in direct dispute with, as well as the need for a clear distinction when it comes to who speaks on the country’s behalf. In response to several unauthorised negotiations with the French government at the height of the Quasi-War, John Adams, the then US President, signed the Logan Act in 1799. Under the Logan Act unauthorised negotiations with a foreign government which are found to have undermined the US government’s negotiating position is a federal crime and incurs a penalty of US$5,000. While rarely used and hotly contested, the Logan Act remains a useful deterrent against diplomatic backchannels that may undermine America’s key foreign policy interests.

A country’s foreign policy cannot be crafted by 650 individual parliamentarians, let alone by private citizens who are not subject to public scrutiny.

As the Brexit negotiations enter the endgame and UK policymakers begin to take stock of the diplomatic free-for-all of the last three years, serious consideration should be given to the need for some form of a British Logan Act. The introduction of such an act would designate clearly who speaks on behalf of the British state and in what capacity they are able to hold official negotiations with foreign governments, and should also include a mechanism for holding private citizens to account if they have conducted unauthorised negotiations that are proven to have undermined the UK.

To ensure that a British Logan Act is not used by ministers as a tool to silence criticism or to prevent the presentation of alternative approaches to foreign policy, any legislation should enshrine the rights of shadow ministers and members of parliament who serve on international affairs related select committees to meet with officials from foreign governments. The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee would be tasked with closely monitoring the use of this new legislation, particularly with regards to the impact it may have on the work of members of parliament.

A country’s foreign policy cannot be crafted by 650 individual parliamentarians, let alone by private citizens who are not subject to public scrutiny. When ministers leave office they are prohibited from lobbying the government for two years; however, no such ban applies to them lobbying foreign governments. While parliamentarians have a long established and legitimate role of scrutinising the foreign policies of the government of the day and ensuring that ministers are held to account, one would be hard-pressed to explain why former ministers outside of elected office or a position in a multinational institution should be engaged in British foreign affairs.

In the wake of the crisis of public faith in the integrity of UK ministers and parliamentarians it is clear that even those who may have sympathised with specific actions that have frustrated the government’s Brexit negotiating strategy, still yearn for stricter handling of how those representing the UK abroad conduct themselves. The Brexit debate has crafted deep fault lines in the public discourse surrounding what kind of message we should send to the EU, and arguably the rest of the world. However, a common theme throughout both sides is the need for greater transparency in who is influencing elected representatives, and the negotiations they enter into.

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