Theresa May and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan have signed a £100m commitment to build new fighter jets, in a deal Downing Street hopes will see Britain become Turkey’s leading defence partner.
Despite concerns about Erdogan’s human rights record and the increasingly authoritarian tone of his government, which has locked up thousands of political dissidents and protestors, a Downing Street spokeswoman said the two issues – human rights and trade – were distinct.
“I think those are separate issues; Turkey is an important Nato partner, so our cooperation on both security and defence is in line with that.”
She added: “The PM’s approach is quite clear: she thinks it is important and in the UK’s interests to engage with Turkey”.
Speaking alongside Erdogan in his vast office, May did take the opportunity to raise the issue of human rights, saying, “I’m proud that the UK stood with you on the 15 July last year in defence of democracy and now it is important that Turkey sustains that democracy by maintaining the rule of law and upholding its international human rights obligations as the government has undertaken to do”.
In his statement, Erdogan stressed the possibilities for boosting trade between the two nations, saying they had talked “extensively” about the jet deal and predator drones.
Asked about the crackdown that followed last year’s attempted coup against Erdogan’s leadership, May’s spokeswoman said: “We have expressed strong support for Turkey’s democracy and institutions following the coup, but have also been very clear that we urge Turkey’s response to be proportionate and in line with international human rights obligations”.
May and Erdogan appeared alongside each other at his lavish presidential palace on a hill overlooking Ankara.
The prime minister, who had earlier laid a wreath at the mausoleum of Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, said: “This agreement underlines once again that Britain is a great, global trading nation and that we are open for business.
“It marks the start of a new and deeper trading relationship with Turkey and will potentially secure British and Turkish jobs and prosperity for decades to come.”
Britain is keen to show it can strike lucrative trade deals as it prepares to exit the European Union, and the prime minister flew to Ankara straight from Washington, where she became the first foreign leader to visit Donald Trump in the White House.
The defence deal will see BAE Systems collaborate with Turkish companies to build a bespoke Turkish jet, the TF-X. It is worth £100m – small in economic terms – but Britain hopes it will kick off a longstanding relationship, and open the door to becoming Turkey’s main defence provider. “We would expect this to unlock further deals,” the spokeswoman said.
May and Erdogan also agreed to form a joint working group to begin talking about a bilateral trade deal that could be signed after Brexit.
Britain currently trades with Turkey under its trade deal with the EU, which will no longer be valid when Britain leaves. The working group will be the 13th Britain has established to scope out potential agreements.
As well as signing the so-called “heads of agreement” for the jet deal, May and Erdogan discussed security cooperation and counter-terrorism.