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Britain’s Brexit debate exposes prejudice and hostility towards Turkey

Sections of the British public are ignorant of Turkey’s real condition and its contribution to European stability

A fierce exchange between David Cameron, the British prime minister, and Penny Mordaunt, a junior minister from his ruling Conservative Party campaigning against him in the referendum over British withdrawal from the EU, has forced the British prime minister to retreat slightly from his support for eventual Turkish-EU membership. It has also drawn attention inside Turkey to the almost visceral hostility which seems to exist towards the country in some sections of EU opinion, including in Britain, usually considered to be one of the stauncher friends of the Turks.

Speaking on television, Mordaunt claimed that it was "very likely" Turkey would join the EU within the next eight years and claimed Britain had no veto stop it joining. She went on to suggest that Turkish membership would open a floodgate of problems with "the UK vulnerable to millions of terrorists, gangsters and 12 million more guns".   

These claims seem to have little basis in fact and Cameron quickly pointed this out. Turkey’s agonisingly slow path to EU membership in fact bristles with vetoes which any member country can use, including two for each of the 35 chapters of the Acquis Communitaire or body of EU law which a candidate must adopt. They were planted there in the 1990s by opponents of Turkish membership in Brussels and they still operate.

But Mordaunt had wrong-footed the prime minister. Her words were the second public attack within a few days on closer links between Turkey and the EU. Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of British intelligence agency MI6, had condemned the idea of visa-free travel for Turks in the EU only a few days earlier.

So Cameron was forced during a TV interview to make a high-profile partial retreat from his longstanding position of support for eventual Turkish EU membership, something which his close ally, George Osborne, his finance minister, has been doing for some months.

A few weeks ago, the British prime minister was supporting the idea of "re-energising" Turkey’s EU membership negotiations, deadlocked for nearly a decade mainly because of the Cyprus dispute. Now he says that Turkish accession seems not to be "remotely on the cards" before 3000. His words were promptly picked up in Turkey where they aroused dismay and shock, as Turks assumed that he had now swung into opposition to their membership bid. In Britain, the Mordaunt-Cameron clash triggered a stream of abusive and hostile anti-Turkish comment on the internet in response to Cameron that seems based on little except instinctive dislike and fear of Turkish migration.

In fact Cameron is doubtless exasperated to see that, despite the continuing support of Germany and Britain, Turkey seems to be steadily distancing itself from European political norms and may indeed no longer satisfy the basic yardstick for EU eligibility, the "Political Criteria of Copenhagen". Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament and a politician who has tried frequently to engage with the Turkish authorities over the last few years, is now saying that the country is on the way to becoming a "one-man state".

Even the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the strongest defender of  a close EU partnership with Turkey (though she is against Turkish membership of the EU) has been forced in a meeting with President Erdogan to express her misgivings about the growing "polarisation" of the country and the need to retain a strong role for parliamentary institutions.

In Ankara and Istanbul the distinction between the ugly grassroots hostility towards Turkey now bubbling out of public opinion even in Britain and criticism by Western politicians aimed at trying to stop Turkey’s drift away from Western-style parliamentary democracy is one that even Erdogan’s opponents find difficult to appreciate.

Turks of all classes, but especially young secularists in metropolitan cities, are well aware that it was something very close to antipathy against their country that blocked its entry to the EU in the late 1990s when it was broadly speaking as eligible as many countries which did actually join. If it had joined then, it might well have pursued a more Western-oriented course.

Why then is there a clear lack of sympathy and solidarity in Western public opinion where the country is concerned. One reason seems to be ignorance of the historical facts and long-standing cultural antagonisms, some of which have been invented and expanded in the last few years. People in the 19th century (when Turkey was a member of the Concert of Europe from 1856) did not accuse the Turks of being non-Europeans in the way that is common today.

Turkey’s Western adversaries tend to be far more aware of the country’s size and its population (whom they seem to envisage solely as uneducated workers) than they are either of its key strategic position or its large industrialised economy which has now operated a full customs union for industrial goods with the EU for two decades with a total trade volume of about €140 billion last year.

The EU is easily Turkey’s largest trading partner and Turkey is the EU’s sixth largest external trade partner, with Turkey running a manageable but chronic trade deficit which makes it a profit centre for the union. A decline in the Turkish economy would have knock-on effects far beyond its borders.

On security, even before the rise of the Islamic State militant group, Turkey played a key role. “Turkey is Europe’s shield again terrorism from the region beyond it and it has played that role for many decades,” says a retired British security official privately.

Perhaps the underlying reason for the spiralling failure of Turkey’s EU project is the inability of Turkey’s political elites to address international opinion convincingly and their preference over many decades for proclaiming that they will ignore the outside world go their own way - a message given most recently to the EU by President Erdogan. This has always been a response to signals from popular opinion in Europe, one which has already had a huge opportunity cost for both sides and which, if British newspaper readers were better informed, might alarm them more than the prospect of migration from a country which already takes in its own guest workers for its industries. A destabilised, embittered, and isolated Turkey is likely to mean instability in the area around it.

- David Barchard has worked in Turkey as a journalist, consultant, and university teacher. He writes regularly on Turkish society, politics, and history, and is currently finishing a book on the Ottoman Empire in the 19th century.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: Penny Mordaunt, speaking at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, north-west England on 30 September 2013 (AFP).