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British PM May turns to Turkey for trade talks

UK Prime Minister May has met with Turkish leaders in Ankara to discuss trade and security, a day after talks with the new US president. Her visit came as the UK seeks to strengthen its hand in Brexit negotiations.

British Prime Minister Theresa May met with Turkish leaders in Ankara on Saturday as Britain attempts to expand its ties outside the European Union before it leaves the bloc.

In a gesture that has become a tradition for visiting leaders, May began her one-day visit by laying a wreath at the mausoleum of the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

Britain and Turkey should "renew our efforts to fulfill Ataturk's vision of peace at home and peace in the world," she said.

May then met with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (photo above) and is also to hold talks with Prime Minister Binali Yildirim during what is her first visit to Turkey since becoming prime minister.

Some EU states have shied away from sending officials to Turkey since a failed coup on July 15 brought a harsh government crackdown in its wake, with some 40,000 people being jailed pending trial and more than 100,000 suspended or dismissed from the military, judiciary and public services.

But May, speaking at a press conference following her meeting with Erdogan, used the opportunity to reiterate her support of Ankara while also touching briefly on human rights issues. 

"I'm proud that the UK stood with you on the 15th July last year in defense 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," she said. 

The prime minister also said the two leaders were planning to form a working group to discuss post-Brexit trade plans, as well as working on an aviation security program.

'Not afraid of any issues'

Prior to the meeting, British MPs had urged May not to let her eagerness to strike good trade deals with Ankara override concerns about possible human rights violations.

When asked whether May would speak about human rights concerns during her visit, a spokeswoman said Britain had "expressed our strong support for Turkey's democracy and institutions following the coup."

Erdogan auf goldenem Thron (picture-alliance/AP Photo/H. Dridi)

Many accuse Erdogan of being an autocratic ruler

"But we have also been clear that we urge Turkey to ensure that their response is proportionate, justified and in line with international human rights obligations," the spokeswoman said, adding that she did not "think there are any issues that the prime minister is afraid to bring up."

Britain is the second most important country - after Germany - for Turkish exports, buying 9.9 billion euros ($10.6 billion) worth of Turkish goods in 2015.

Turkey has long aspired to be a member of the European Union, with Britain seen as one of its most enthusiastic supporters. But now that support in the EU for Turkish accession is on the wane amid concerns about the country's political and human rights situation, and Britain itself is due to leave the bloc within the next few years, both nations are looking to bolster relations with non-EU states.

British Foreign Minister Boris Johnson also visited Turkey just three months after Britain voted in June to leave the EU, saying during his stay that London wanted a "jumbo free trade deal" with Ankara. Any possible embarrassment over his being the author of the winning entry in an offensive poetry competition about Erdogan earlier in the year seemed to do nothing to dampen his enthusiasm.

Treffen mit dem US-Präsidenten - May bei Trump (Reuters/C. Barria)

May was the first leader to visit the new US president

Brexit 'a fantastic thing'

As part of the UK's bid to reinforce its trade reach beyond the borders of the EU, May met on Friday with newly inaugurated US President Donald Trump, with Trump saying he would work with the British premier to lay the groundwork for a bilateral trade deal.

Trump, who has often voiced his opposition to supranational alliances, also called the impending departure of the Britain from the EU a "fantastic thing."

May's government has said it will trigger the formal Brexit negotiations by the end of March, after which the process of extricating Britain from the bloc is expected to take at least two years.

tj/rc (Reuters, AFP)