The fame of Boris Johnson, Britain's new foreign secretary – already a legend in his homeland thanks to either his wit or his boorishness (take your pick) – has now begun to spread across Central and Eastern Europe because of his campaigning for Brexit, in particular his focus on the threat from immigrants from the region.
Turkey, from which Johnson's great grandfather hailed, has more reason than most to feel offended by the Conservative politician. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in particular, must have felt slighted by Johnson, who won The Spectator's President Erdogan Offensive Poem competition in May with the following limerick:
"There was a young fellow from Ankara
Who was a terrific wankerer
Till he sowed his wild oats
With the help of a goat
But he didn’t even stop to thankera."
Johnson won the competition thanks to his notoriety more than his poetic talent, as Spectator editor Douglas Murray readily confesses. And Erdogan was likely unimpressed by the "light spanking" that Johnson tried to deliver through the limerick for the Turkish government's crackdown on freedom of speech.
But surprisingly for the Turkish head of state – who is notoriously thin-skinned, having prosecuted more than 2,000 Turks for offending him, and who has abused century-old German laws to go after critical comedians – he never retaliated against Johnson. He remained mum about the limerick when it was published in May, and after Johnson's appointment as foreign secretary in new Prime Minister Theresa May cabinet on July 14. This is a far cry from the impulsive Erdogan that the West has become accustomed to, one that promptly lashed out against foreign leaders, including David Cameron and Vladimir Putin, in the past.
Not the same can be said about Erdogan's Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, who has advised the British foreign secretary not to make any more mistakes when it comes to Turkey and expressed his wish that "God will help and reform him" in an interview with the BBC.
In two minds
It is uncertain whether God will help Johnson, who has professed to not being "a serious practicing Christian", albeit one that "thinks about religion a lot".
Yet Johnson has also expressed sympathy for Turkey in the past. A great-grandson of Ottoman journalist Ali Kemal, Johnson once advocated for Turkey's EU membership. "But what are we saying if we perpetually keep Turkey out of the European Union just because it's Muslim? ...Are we really saying, about ourselves, and about Europe, that it must be forever coterminous with nothing but Christendom?" he asked rhetorically on the shores of the Bosphorus in a 2006 BBC documentary titled The Dream of Rome.
His earlier stance on Turkey makes his association with the anti-Turkey Brexit campaign all the more surprising. His statements to the Sunday Times during the campaign further contributed to the confusion about Johnson's position on Turkish EU membership. "I am very pro-Turkish," he reportedly claimed, "but what I certainly can’t imagine is a situation in which 77 million of my fellow Turks and those of Turkish origin can come [to the UK] without any checks at all. That is really mad – that won’t work." The claim was mendacious, of course – the EU is not proposing to let Turks settle across the bloc, and never has done.
But if Ankara is willing to adopt a tabula rasa attitude towards Johnson, at least ostensibly, it is not so much because of his Turkish lineage as it is for the sake of the $16bn in yearly bilateral trade between the two countries, of the 2.5mn British tourists who visit Turkey every year, and of the 250,000 Turks who live in Great Britain.
As for Johnson, let's hope he finds himself on the shores of the Bosphorus again in his new capacity, and that he is reminded of his former advocacy for the country's EU membership.