The EURef highlights Europe’s ambivalence to its buffer state
“Bridge Together”: Istanbul’s slogan for its unsuccessful 2020 Olympic bid captured well the country’s unifying potential, linking as it does not only Europe and Asia but also the secular west with the Islamic Middle East. A bridge, however, needs firm foundations and Turkey, rather than pulling two sides together, is more swayed by the forces pulling it in opposite directions.
Hence the force of the arguments this week about its potential future EU membership; arguments which had an unspoken but nasty undertone, essentially asking: “you don’t want a Turk for a neighbour, do you?”.
Leaving aside whether or not people do – and Leave and their supporters in the press are confident they don’t, probably rightly – the question is entirely moot. Turkey certainly won’t be joining the EU this decade, almost certainly won’t join during the next one and is pretty unlikely to join in the one after that.
The history of its membership ambition is telling. Turkey first applied for membership of the EC in 1987. It took twelve years to accept that application and a further six to begin talks. Another eleven years down the line to today and just one of the 33 chapters to settle membership entry has been successfully negotiated. In the meantime, sixteen other countries have joined the Union (seven of which didn’t even exist in 1987).
Turkey’s future barriers to joining the club are even more formidable. Greece and Cyprus both have vetoes making their assent unlikely unless the Cypriot question is resolved. But even if those relatively small and financially unstable countries are cowed into line, much bigger problems remain.
France may no longer constitutionally require a referendum to approve Turkish membership (that provision was repealed in 2008), but public opinion will still make itself felt and public opinion is not supportive: in March this year, fully three-quarters were opposed. With Marine Le Pen receiving the backing of up to a third of the public in polls for the first round of next year’s presidential election and the run-off highly likely to be between the centre-right and the far-right, Elysée policy will reflect that hostility with a good chance that negotiations will rapidly be placed back in the freezer.
And if France doesn’t, others will, for the same reason. Angela Merkel is under pressure from the populist right-wing AfD, which hit 15% for the first time in three polls this month; in Holland, the stridently anti-Islamic PVV is regularly polling above 35%, at shares no party has received at any Dutch general election since before WWI; and in Austria, only 21,000 votes in 4.5m kept the far-right FPÖ candidate from the presidency. A quiet revolution is happening across Europe. Quiet so far, anyway.
In fact, virtually every member of the EU has good reason to oppose a country the size of Turkey with the income of Turkey joining, even without considering cultural factors. Those in the poorer south and east would lose billions in structural funds, while those in the richer north and west would likely face a new wave of immigration. Neither is an appealing prospect.
So what of Cameron’s apparent support? Out of line? Not necessarily. The Leave campaigners were keen to play up his comment from 2010 that “I want us to pave the road from Ankara to Brussels” but taken in isolation, the quote misses the context. Ankara was at the time reforming towards western values, scrapping anti-Kurdish legislation and abolishing the death penalty – and in his speech from which that quote is taken, he argued that Turkey needed to do more still.
The simple fact is that Cameron’s support was conditional. From the same speech that the above quote came from, he said “Europe will draw fresh vigour and purpose from a Turkey that embraces human rights and democracy”. However, under Erdogan, new restraints on press freedom and human rights in general have moved the country away from the Copenhagen criteria to a point where the entire process could easily be frozen again; something which would enable Downing Street to play it both ways. Turkey is of course on the front line next to Syria, which has certainly put huge pressures on the country but that too simply emphasises its differentness.
Why would it matter? In a word: Russia. The lodestone in Turkish foreign policy since at least the eighteenth century has been set by antagonism across the Black Sea. Whether supported by Britain in the nineteenth century or allied to Germany in WWI or joining NATO after WWII or the current spats in Syria, the one common thread is resisting the Bear. That’s why people like Lord Owen are wrong when they say that Turkey may leave NATO if its European ambitions are frustrated. Turkey needs NATO, or at least, it needs Great Power backing one way or another. The EU is a sideshow on that level. After all, it hasn’t taken more than a quarter of a century since Turkey’s original application because only one side’s been dragging their feet.
So given all that, why the fuss? Because in Cameron’s words, Leave thought they’d found a magic bullet. They hadn’t, not least because they not only failed to get their facts right but they provably got them wrong: suggesting, for example, that Britain didn’t have a veto on Turkey’s accession. And yet after several days where the topic was at the centre of the debate, Leave have let it drop. Have they been distracted or was that deliberate?
To return to the beginning, for all that the public don’t want high immigration, the tone of the argument was unpleasant. In a vote where facts are scarce and assertion and conjecture plentiful, credibility matters above all, and credibility can be damaged by sounding to be not a nice person (despite it not being inherently linked). As an aside, if Leave does win, Cameron trashing his own public credibility will have no small part in it.
Immigration remains one of the strongest cards Leave have to play but they played it poorly this week. Can they play it again and if they do, can they play it better next time? I think it will be difficult. As such, the net outcome this week was a narrow and ugly points win to Remain.