British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson raised eyebrows when he pledged the United Kingdom’s support for Turkey’s EU accession bid during a visit to Ankara on Tuesday.
Johnson, who was selected as the UK’s top diplomat by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May after she took over from David Cameron in July, was on his first official visit to Turkey since assuming his new post.
Known for his clownish behaviour, the former London mayor’s arrival was greeted with a mixed reaction. Earlier this year, before becoming foreign secretary, Johnson won a local competition run by the Spectator magazine for the “most offensive” poem about Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
He also used Turkey joining the EU as a scare tactic to get Britons to vote for a British exit, otherwise known as a “Brexit,” from the bloc in a nationwide referendum in June. A leading figure in the campaign, he warned Britons of a wave of Muslim migration to the UK from Turkey in the event of its accession.
But some welcomed Johnson’s visit. A descendent of an Ottoman Turk who migrated to Britain himself, Johnson was nicknamed “Ottoman Boris” by many Turks, including Turkey's EU Affairs Minister Ömer Çelik.
— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) September 27, 2016
The British foreign secretary had tried to alleviate tensions upon his arrival by boasting of his "proud ownership" of a "beautiful, very well-functioning Turkish washing machine."
Asked in a press conference at Turkey's foreign ministry if his poem about Erdoğan had come up in meetings with Turkish officials on Tuesday morning, Johnson said he was "delighted” to say that it had not been mentioned. Johnson met Erdoğan later in the day.
Instead, Johnson said he hoped for a “jumbo free trade deal between the United Kingdom and Turkey" and pledged the UK’s commitment to help Turkey’s EU accession bid.
“Britain will remain committed to helping Turkey’s path towards accession … to helping Turkey in any way possible.” he said. “I believe that that partnership is absolutely critical for our future and for the future of the EU and indeed the future of the wider regions.”
Co-operation on Gülenists
In the press conference, Johnson praised Turkey’s stand for democracy after a coup attempt to topple the government in Ankara in July was foiled.
“Turkey, even if it is not an EU member, is a European power historically and a European democracy. Following the July 15 coup attempt, Turkey proved with its nation that it has a first-class democracy,” Johnson said.
He also vowed to support Turkey in its quest to investigate members of an outlawed network led by US-based cult leader Fethullah Gülen, dubbed by the Turkish authorities as the Fethullahist Terror Organisation (FETÖ), which is accused of orchestrating the coup attempt.
“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,” he said.
“Plainly what happened in July was deeply violent, deeply anti-democratic, deeply sinister and it was totally right that it was crushed.”
Back in the UK, however, Johnson’s comments were met with criticism from the pro-Brexit camp. Former United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) head Nigel Farage in a tweet said, “One of the reasons UK voted to leave EU was prospect of Turkey joining. What on Earth is Boris Johnson playing at?”
— VoteLeaveUK (@VoteLeave_UK) September 27, 2016
Liberal Democrat lawmaker Norman Lamb also responded to Johnson’s remarks. “Boris cannot wash away the stains of his Leave campaign’s scaremongering over Turkish accession to the EU,” he wrote on the pro-EU Open Britain group’s website.
“Boris is famous for having his cake and eating it, but even by his standards this takes the biscuit.”