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UK's Johnson on first Turkey trip since Brexit tensions

Johnson pledged he would still support Turkey's bid to join the EU despite the British vote to leave the bloc
UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson (AFP)

Boris Johnson on Monday made his first visit to Turkey as Britain's foreign secretary, seeking to ease tensions after leading the successful Brexit campaign that played on anti-Turkish sentiments.

Johnson, who is partly of Turkish ancestry, began his trip with a visit to a camp for Syrian refugees in the southeast, before heading to Ankara for political talks. The flamboyant former London mayor may find aspects of his visit awkward after he penned the winning entry in a competition on offensive poetry about President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, published by the conservative British magazine The Spectator, in which he referred to the president as a "w**ker".

The trip is the highest-level visit to Turkey by a British official since the failed coup on 15 July in which a rogue military faction tried to overthrow the Turkish government. Johnson vowed that London would stand "shoulder-to-shoulder with Ankara" and said Turkey had a "vital role to play" in the global arena.

He said Britain would still support Turkey's bid to join the EU despite the British vote to exit from the bloc. "We may be leaving the European Union but we are not leaving Europe. And Britain... will help Turkey in any way," he said at a news conference with EU Affairs Minister Omer Celik.

Johnson, one of the most prominent public faces of the campaign for Britain to leave the European Union, previously made a strong case for Turkish membership of the bloc. But the Brexit campaign repeatedly raised the spectre of millions of Turks being free to live in Britain as a reason to pull out of the 28-nation bloc.

David Cameron, who resigned as British prime minister after the Brexit vote, also said during the campaign that Turkish EU membership was not "remotely on the cards" and may not happen until the year 3000, further angering Ankara.

Before the Brexit vote, Britain was always seen as one of the strongest supporters of Ankara's bid for EU membership. Extolling trade between the countries, Johnson boasted that he was the proud "possessor" of a "beautiful" Turkish washing machine.

Johnson earlier visited the Nizip refugee camp in the region of Gaziantep near the Syrian border. Turkey, a fierce opponent of President Bashar al-Assad, is hosting nearly three million Syrian refugees who have fled the war, and has been pressing for a safe zone on the Syrian side of the border to house refugees. Johnson said he had seen "some of the remarkable work that Turkey is doing" and added that he congratulates "President Erdogan for the generosity you are showing".

Johnson has also made headlines in Turkish media because of his Turkish great-grandfather Ali Kemal, who was a politician and a journalist in the early 20th century. He said he had "met some of my relatives" in the last 24 hours. A number of Turks from Johnson's ancestral home of Kalfat in central Anatolia have lauded the link between Johnson and Turkey.

“We will sacrifice many sheep in Boris’s honour. We will repave our roads, repaint our buildings. We will give him the complete red carpet treatment if he visits his ancestral village,” Adem Karaagac, the village headman, told Middle East Eye.

Turkey's relations with Europe have soured after the coup attempt due to concerns over Ankara's subsequent crackdown on alleged putsch plotters. Ankara has angrily rejected the criticism that the vast purge might breach rights norms that Ankara must meet for accession into the EU.