(AFP) – British foreign minister Boris Johnson on Tuesday brushed off as “trivia” an offensive poem he wrote about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, boasting of the strength of Ankara-London ties even after Britain’s vote to leave EU.
On his first visit to Turkey as top diplomat, Johnson called for a “jumbo free trade deal” with Ankara that would strengthen economic relations that take in everything from cakes to washing machines.
Johnson, who is of partly Turkish ancestry, described Turkey as “the land of my fathers”, emphasising that relatives had worked in senior Turkish foreign ministry positions.
The flamboyant former London mayor, who helped lead the successful campaign for Britain to leave the EU, had in May penned the winning entry in a competition on offensive poetry about Erdogan, published by the conservative British magazine The Spectator.
But he said he was “delighted” the poem had not come up at all during talks since he arrived in Turkey earlier this week.
He said what people in Turkey most wanted to hear after the failed July 15 coup was “about our committment to Turkey… and that is very strong.”
“As for the trivia that you raised… it has not come up at all,” he said, referring to the poem.
“In fact I am not remotely surprised that it hasn’t come up, that nobody has seen fit to raise it until you did,” he told a journalist at a news conference alongside Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara.
Afterwards Johnson met with Erdogan at the president’s palace with any lingering animosity over the poem forgotten.
In a video shared by the presidency on its website, the two men smiled and laughed when Erdogan gave Johnson as a gift a replica of an Ottoman sultan’s letter to a Manchester mayor.
– Cake diplomacy –
Underlining the strength of the Britain-Turkey relationship even after the vote to leave the EU, he noted that the iconic Jaffa Cakes biscuits “that I grew up on as a child” were now owned by Turkish confectionary giant Ulker.
“What more visible symbol could there be of our economic partnership than that,” he said, after emphasising the UK’s wish to increase economic ties with Turkey.
Johnson revealed on Monday that he owned a “beautiful, very well functioning Turkish washing machine”, in a nod to the importance of Turkey’s consumer goods exports.
He called for a “jumbo free trade deal” between the two countries, adding while Britain was leaving the European Union, it was not leaving Europe.
“We will in the UK remain passionate and committed supporters of Turkey and of the Turkish cause… but we will also be seeking to intensify our own partnership with Turkey,” he said.
Johnson, whose great-grandfather Ali Kemal was briefly a Turkish minister shortly after World War I, also referred to his personal ties to Turkey.
“Some of you may know this is the land of my fathers, this very (foreign) ministry is the place where my relatives used to work, (including) my great uncle Zeki Kuneralp.”
– Gulen group has ‘cult aspects’ –
Kuneralp, who served for decades as a senior Turkish diplomat, was the son of Johnson’s great-grandfather Ali Kemal, who was murdered in the 1920s. Zeki Kuneralp’s son Selim was also a senior Turkish diplomat who retired in 2015.
Johnson condemned the July 15 coup bid as a “violent… deeply anti-democratic (and) deeply sinister” attack on Turkish democracy.
He said the group of US-based preacher Fethullah Gulen — which Ankara blames for the failed coup — “seems to me to have many aspects of a cult” and vowed to take action if necessary against affiliated groups in Britain.
“We have to look now very seriously at the implications for so-called Gulenist organisations in our country,” he added.
Gulen, who has lived in self-exile since 1999, denies Ankara’s accusations.
Turkey has launched a widescale crackdown against those linked to the Gulen movement, sacking, detaining or suspending tens of thousands in the education sector, the judiciary and military.
In response, Johnson only said that there had to be a “measured and proportionate response”.