After British Prime Minister David Cameron's resignation from the Conservative Party leadership and Prime Ministry, the sole candidate of the ruling Tory chairmanship, Theresa May, announced the members of her cabinet on Wednesday. Among the other figures, the appointment of the Boris Johnson to as foreign secretary was the biggest surprise, not only for British politics, but also for the world.
Regarding Boris Johnson's appointment, German parliamentarian and the Bundestag Committee on Foreign Affairs committee substitute member Rolf Mützenich on Thursday said: "I wouldn't be surprised if Britain will now name Dracula as health minister."
Johnson is a former mayor of London, a leading figure of the Brexit Leave campaign and also well known for his diplomatic insensitivities. In Turkey especially, Johnson has a well-deserved negative image after he expressed "his sympathies are with the PKK" last November on TV despite the group being regarded as a terrorist organization by the British government. He also won a contest for writing the "most offensive" poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in May 2016 and used Turkey's EU accession process for fearmongering during the Brexit campaign last month.
So whether Johnson's appointment to as foreign secretary will jeopardize Turkish-British bilateral relations has became a big question. A senior officer from the presidency said: "The poem was unacceptable and distasteful," and stressed the importance of bilateral relations. "But Turkey's relationship with the United Kingdom goes beyond personalities. Obviously, we expect Mr. Johnson to perform his new job in a professional and cordial matter," a senior official from the presidency said.
Prime Minister Binalı Yıldırım described Johnson's disparaging statements on Turkey during the Brexit campaign as "very unfortunate." "Well, what would I say to him? Well, may God help him and reform him and I hope that he won't make any more mistakes and try to make it up with the Turks," he said in an interview on BBC hard talk on Thursday.
According to the British Embassy in Ankara, a major policy shift toward Turkey is unexpected. "The U.K. values its important relationship with Turkey, a key NATO ally and partner, and looks forward to broadening and deepening this vital strategic partnership in the years to come," a senior official from the British Embassy told Daily Sabah, stressing areas of cooperation between the two countries as "we are both members of the G20, the OSCE [Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe] and the Council of Europe."
"The U.K. is a member of the U.N. Security Council, the G7 and the Commonwealth, so we still have a lot of shared interests with Turkey and we will continue to want a Turkey that is prosperous and secure," a senior British diplomat said. Professor Richard Whitman from Chatham House in London shared similar thoughts, saying that the preoccupation of British foreign policy is to develop a new relationship with the EU, but simultaneously to try and develop a new or deepen some existing relationships. "I think the U.K. will want to balance its long membership in the EU with strong relationships, strong bilateral relationships without a European country," Whitman said.
Enes Bayraklı of the Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) also does not expect Johnson to negatively affect the relations between the U.K. and Turkey. Explaining that Johnson's anti-Turkish discourse during the Brexit campaign became irrelevant after the referendum, Bayraklı said that Johnson will not maintain a similar discourse during his new post as foreign secretary. "The U.K. has a deep-rooted foreign policy tradition. I do not foresee any change in this with Boris Johnson's appointment. Since Brexit has been successful, I do believe that Turkey's EU membership will not be discussed by the British parliament anymore," Bayraklı said.
Commenting on the developments, David Hearst, the editor-in-chief of the Middle East Eye, said: "Having torn up its relationship with Brussels and Berlin, Britain will want to emphasise its internationalist credentials. This may sound counter factual but to allay concerns that it is becoming an isolationist island off the coast of the continent, Britain will pour much more effort into its international commitment, particularly NATO. Johnson will naturally want to visit countries who are treated badly by the EU. Turkey may be one of them and this may work to Turkey's advantage. I don't however expect anything coherent to come out of this period of foreign policy. The major foreign policy concern of Britain will be to untangle itself from the EU. This will consume all its energies."
Mensur Akgün of the Global Political Trends Center (GPOT) asserted that the U.K.'s departure from the EU may be complicated if Johnson decides to maintain his particular brand of rhetoric. "It is not certain whether Johnson will maintain his populist discourse. However, I do not believe that the U.K. and Turkey will have to face each other frequently during this process," he said said. According to Akgün, Turkey should perceive Johnson's appointment as an internal affair for the U.K. and bid Godspeed to the EU.
Richard Whitman from Chattam House also drew attention to the fact that after the Brexit referendum the U.K. really will not have a view on Turkey's EU accession process. "That's something of a paradox you know. Britain has, historically and rhetorically, been very much in favor of Turkey's membership of the EU. The referendum campaign I would see as much more of a blip or not really in keeping with what the policy has been across time. Of course now, when the U.K. will probably want to have a deep, deepened relationship with Turkey, this will be the moment in which they have the least influence in the European Union on Turkey's prospects of becoming a member of the EU, if that is what it still wants," Whitman added.
Dr. Denis MacShane, a former European minister of the U.K., criticized new Prime Minister Theresa May for following illiberal, reactionary policies to exclude foreign students and other non-EU citizens since she has never been willing to stand up to right-wing populists who try to gain influence and win power by attacking immigrants.