Rory Speaks on UK – Turkey Relations


One of the reasons why Turkey is such an exciting subject is that it is an exemplar not just for the whole Middle East, but for British foreign policy. Turkey is a strange place for us. We have a huge great embassy—now the consulate general—in Istanbul, and it would impress hon. Members. It is more magnificent than this Chamber and even than the other place, with wooden parquet floors and beautiful marble courtyards.

Only 20 years ago, that all seemed a bit out of date and out of proportion. For all the reasons my hon. Friend the Member for North Dorset (Mr Walter) pointed out, the embassy was conceived when the Ottoman empire was at its height and when Lord Palmerston, based in this House, was charging around frenetically, shelling the coast of what was then part of the Ottoman empire to seize Acre and play incredibly complicated games with Russia and France—and, indeed, Afghanistan and Persia on the Turkish borders.

By a decade ago, we could see that the Foreign Office had almost given up, and that is a real parable in what goes wrong in long-term British foreign policy planning. Ten years ago, the desk officer for Turkey, in London, said very confidently that there was absolutely no point in the Islamic department of the Foreign Office doing Islamic communication or anything in Turkey because in 2001 we were absolutely confident that Turkey was a secular state and that in Turkey there was absolutely no interest in Islam. Almost immediately after the desk officer made that comment, a Government with strong conservative Muslim roots, and a leadership with a history of political Islam, were elected to office in Turkey.

Even two years ago, the situation in our embassy in Turkey was still one of pretty extreme crisis. As the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee has pointed out, we were shifting towards the system that eventually came about, involving the closing down of the BBC Turkish service and the British Council in Turkey hiding at the back of a large shopping mall with almost no evidence of Britain on display. It has an energetic, dynamic and dedicated Turkish staff who, understandably, struggle to communicate British culture to a Turkish audience, given that a significant number of them have never visited the United Kingdom.

As the report makes clear—last year the Foreign Office gave us the figures—we have 25 extensive Turkish speakers in the British diplomatic network, of whom exactly one was in the embassy in Turkey. That is the top level of Turkish language. We also had 23 operational Turkish speakers—and again, exactly one of them was to be found in Turkey. That is comparable with having 46 fast-jet pilots trained at great expense to the UK taxpayer and only two of them flying aeroplanes.

In addition, the focus has been taken from political work towards other forms of work. Why does that matter? It matters for all the reasons on which others in the Chamber have so eloquently held forth. Turkey is now a major exemplar for the region, a place of interest and importance to the United Kingdom and somewhere we ought to be able to exercise some influence.

Politically, of course, Turkey represents something that confounded our fears and predictions. Many commentators, looking at Turkey in 2001, were terrified, just as we were terrified about Islamic movements in Egypt, by the possibility of some kind of Islamist movement in Turkey which reliable commentators described in 2001 and 2002 as some form of new Taliban or even new al-Qaeda. Indeed, that was swept up by secular voices in Turkey, that focused on the worst-case scenario in terms of what the AKP would be. The reality is that those fears were not confirmed; in fact, that change is perhaps the strongest example worldwide of a democratic transition from a military Government—considerably more impressive even than the transition achieved in Indonesia.

As others have so eloquently pointed out, on the economic side the Turkish economy, in per capita GDP terms, is now larger than that of Bulgaria or Romania. It has grown considerably faster in the past decade, and the Istanbul littoral—the 20 million people around Istanbul—have a GDP per capita larger than that of Poland.

As regards the AKP’s conduct of foreign affairs, despite the opposition party complaining that it would be an unruly, destabilising force, we have found that although it has taken an independent policy on Israel and an unexpected policy on Syria and on Iran, it has not proved to be a dangerous force in the region at all. In fact, in Libya the AKP has proved to be an extraordinary example in being more generous and flexible than many other NATO members, and it has got considerably more credit from the Libyan people as a result.

Of course, this does not mean that everything is sunny in Turkey. As many people have pointed out, there are serious problems. From a foreign policy point of view, there is no point in our treating Turkey as though it were a superpower, because it remains a middle-ranking power. We cannot vest in it all responsibility for the middle east. We cannot imagine that it has the key to the solution in Afghanistan or in Syria. Despite Turkey’s extraordinary development over the past 30 years, there remains a significant gap in terms of human, financial and institutional capital that prevents it from occupying that kind of role. Economically, as the right hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd) pointed out, there are considerable problems in eastern Turkey, where people have a GDP per capita that is one sixth that of people in Istanbul; in other words, they often have per capita incomes of about $4,000 to $5,000 a year. Turkey is not a wealthy country.

In terms of politics, we need seriously to consider the fact that despite the great advances and the extraordinary tightrope action of the AKP Government in the way that they improvised with the constitution, negotiated challenges with the judiciary, and took certain moves that were on the risky side, we have ended up—despite all the progress made with the military—with the scandal of what is happening with the terror laws. Turkey should, and can, be an example to the region, but that ought not to involve locking up peaceful dissidents, journalists and academics. That is not a necessary part of a counter-terrorism policy.

Stephen Phillips (Sleaford and North Hykeham) (Con): I think that 10% or more of the cases in the European Court of Human Rights emanate from Turkey. My hon. Friend and others have spoken about the steps that Turkey has managed to take in improving human rights. Will he tell the House what further measures he thinks necessary? The Minister could then tell us what steps the Government are taking to encourage those measures.

Rory Stewart: The central element is to focus on making sure—we in Britain have experienced this and people have gone through it in Spain—that the terror laws are not applied to peaceful protesters such as academics and journalists but targeted at people who are genuinely involved in armed struggle. Perhaps Britain, which has built up a good relationship with Turkey through taking a friendly attitude towards EU accession, has more leverage over that issue than countries such as France.

What can Britain do, though? The core question is not “Whither Turkey?” but “Whither Britain in Turkey?” What is the Foreign Office supposed to do? What sort of reforms are we supposed to introduce? How are we supposed to change our attitude towards the country to get more out of the relationship? The first thing we need to do is very difficult. It is all very well the Foreign Office saying that it has designated more speaker slots in Turkey, but the unfortunate reality is that if a slot has been designated for a Turkish speaker, there is no way of compelling anyone to fill it. Therefore, across the diplomatic network we have a number of slots designated for Arabic speakers or Turkish speakers that remain unfilled. If we are serious about making sure that out of 25 Turkish speakers a quarter, say, are in Turkey, we have to change the human resources procedures of the Foreign Office. We have to move from a situation where everybody is allowed to bid for posts towards one in which a manager can tell people that they should be going to Turkey given that the taxpayer has invested considerably in training them in the language.

That also necessitates difficult HR changes to the core competency framework that governs promotion within the Foreign Office. Currently, the second secretary for political affairs at the embassy in Ankara does not have a direct interest in continuing in political work. Despite good sounds coming from the Minister and the Foreign Secretary, saying that political work is increasingly important, and despite all the good messages about the diplomatic excellence initiative, the brutal reality remains that one’s career in the Foreign Office is determined by management expertise.

All the incentives are driving ambitious young people out of political work and into getting management experience. I can name two cases in the diplomatic network in Turkey of people who have chosen to go into UK Trade and Investment management roles because they do not believe that they will be promoted on the basis of political roles. The core competency framework, which governs promotion, does not take into account linguistic expertise or deep country knowledge in any way; it measures people purely—and is only allowed to measure people—on the basis of their management skills. That must be changed if we are fundamentally to change the culture of the Foreign Office. It is not enough for us to say that these things matter; we must promote people on the basis of them.

To deepen this further, we might need to change the criteria on which people are rewarded. We should have indicators of how many Turks, for example, somebody in the embassy meets. We should have indicators of how often they get outside Ankara and Istanbul to remote areas of the country. That should be part of the criteria for their assessment and promotion.

Finally, on commercial opportunities and UKTI, it is all very well our saying that we want to double UK trade and investment with Turkey, but how is that going to happen? Where are the people and where is the drive? It is difficult to make that happen. Italy is currently outperforming us twofold in Turkey—Italian trade to Turkey is nearly twice that of British. Sixteen flights a day go from Italy to Turkey, almost all of them from Milan. Big Italian infrastructure companies are building roads and getting involved in dams, and small and medium-sized Italian companies are outperforming British small and medium-sized enterprises on the ground.

I propose, modestly, that it might be worth looking at seconding 25-year-olds from major UK financial and consultancy companies, with proper incentive structures and targets, to try to achieve the difficult aim of boosting UK trade and investment. I do not want to pick out a particular company, but I would imagine that McKinsey would be quite happy to second somebody at the age of 25 to UKTI for two or three years, with a decent incentive structure, to see whether they could meet those targets.

All this is necessary because Turkey matters. It matters to Britain, and Britain’s leverage in Turkey is still potentially large. If we introduced those kinds of reforms in Turkey and other countries, we could achieve something extraordinary. The danger is that, having been worried 20 years ago that the great palace on a hill that we occupy was too large for Turkey and that Britain’s
interests were elsewhere, we run the risk of being that other great building in Istanbul, which is of course the great representation of Venice—a palace even larger than ours, stuck up on the hill. That now seems out of date for a different reason—because Turkey is too big for Venice. Let us make sure that that does not happen to us.

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