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The Debate About Whether Turkey Is Joining the EU Is Largely Based on Bullshit

The hysteria around Turkey joining the EU ignores two fundamental facts: Turkey doesn't particularly want to join, and couldn't even if it wanted to.

by Louise Callaghan
01 June 2016, 12:00am

Watching the Brexit debate play out, it can be hard to tell whether some British politicians think their constituents are stupid, or whether they are actually clueless about Europe's relationship with Turkey.

Michael Gove, the justice secretary, thinks that five million Turks – many of them criminals – will flood to the UK when Turkey inevitably joins the EU. The Daily Express has gone further, saying that 79 million are poised to come to Britain - that's the entire population of Turkey plus another few unidentifiable millions. The Vote Leave campaign even released a poster (above) which unequivocally states that "Turkey (population 76m) is joining the EU".

All of this meant that David Cameron and the Stronger In campaign spent much of last week trying to assuage fears about Turkey. Cameron even accused his own defence minister, Leave campaigner Penny Mordaunt, of lying about the prospect of Turkey being able to join.

For decades, British Eurosceptics have been using the idea of Turkey joining the EU as a way of scaring people into supporting them. But this isn't just racist – bearing heavy overtones of "keep the Muslim foreigners out" - it's intentionally misleading and practically impossible.

The hysteria around Turkey joining the EU ignores two fundamental facts: Turkey doesn't particularly want to join, and couldn't even if it wanted to. Since 1987, when it started the process of joining the EU, it has fulfilled just one of the 35 sets of requirements for membership, the chapter on science and research: completing it basically involved hiring some analysts, changing a few laws and saying they would open a science museum.

The other ones are harder, especially because a lot of them have to do with things - like human rights – that Turkey is sometimes not that good at. When David Cameron said this month that Turkey wouldn't join the EU before the year 3000, he wasn't that far off.

They also don't really want to join. About ten years ago, when the EU was doing well, membership was a priority for the Turkish government and many Turkish people. But that is no longer the case. Though 62 per cent of Turks say they want to join the EU, seven out of ten believe they'll never be allowed in.

Joining the EU is no longer as attractive as it once was. As you may have noticed, quite a few people in the UK would like to leave, and they're not the only ones. The Euro isn't doing that well. Far-right groups are gathering support from across the continent – many of them campaigning on an anti-EU agenda. Turkey's ultra-nationalist domestic politics also doesn't prioritise European integration.


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The Turkish government, which is run by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a former semi-professional football player who thinks social media is run by a "robot lobby", is not particularly bothered about EU membership. "We'll go our way, and you'll go yours," he told the EU last month.

Erdogan's party, the Islamist-rooted AKP, has been in power since 2003. Though he was originally embraced by the west as a reformist who would relax the country's strict secularist laws – which banned women from wearing headscarves in public places – many have turned against him in recent years.

His critics claim he has developed authoritarian tendencies, including allowing the arrest of thousands of people for "insulting" him and cracking down on the free press. One man who shared a picture on Facebook comparing him to Gollum could face a two-year prison sentence.

Turkey's sentiment towards the EU is constantly changing. According to Akin Unver, assistant professor of international relations at Istanbul's Kadir Has University, support for the EU tends to go up whenever Turkey is affected by instability in the region. What with Syria, Iraq and Ukraine being pretty much the definition of unstable at the moment, that means there's been a gradual increase in support since 2014.

But Turkish society is deeply divided, meaning that half the population generally thinks that what the other half believes is completely insane. EU membership is no exception.

Unver says that it's mostly nationalists and religious conservatives who are against the EU, with most of the support coming from liberals. But even within those groups there is a more complex picture.

There are plenty of educated, western liberals who don't want to join the EU. "They don't want us, and we don't want them," said Onur Cokar, 31, a bar manager from Istanbul, echoing the sentiment of the president – though they hold very different political views. "Turkey and Europe are different cultures. Most of my friends don't give a shit about the European Union. They're not going to help us. Look at Greece, what happened to them. Look at Portugal and Spain."

For some deeply religious, conservative supporters of the government, the EU is a shady Christian gang of nations that should be avoided at all costs. One theory that crops up from time to time is that the 12 stars on the EU flag represent the 12 disciples of Jesus. (They don't.)

Ahmet, 53, a construction worker who supports the AKP, doesn't go as far as that, but thinks the EU lies to Turkey about its intentions. "They say they want us to join, but then they take it back," he told VICE during a break from digging. "They're lying. They're Christians and they won't accept us."

A lot of the Turkish suspicion towards EU membership comes from the idea that the Europe is constantly changing their minds about letting them in. It's not hard to see why: EU leaders often spout misleading rhetoric about Turkey's prospects for accession.

When David Cameron visited Turkey in 2010, he said he wanted to "pave the road from Ankara to Brussels". But statements like that don't really mean that much in practise. When Cameron says that he supports Turkey's accession process to the EU, this doesn't mean that he is actually going to let them join without completing all the requirements. It means that he supports them trying to.

All of this is completely academic because there is no chance at all of Turkey joining the EU any time soon.

Cameron and Erdogan compare their wi-fi routers. Via

The debate around Turkey's EU membership is only in the news now because it has been caught up with panic about the refugee crisis and the granting of visa-free access for Turks to some parts of the EU for short holidays or business trips. These three separate issues are being mixed together for political gain by the Leave campaign, the Turkish government and many EU leaders, all of whom at times seem happy to completely disregard basic facts.

This is what really happened: the EU was desperate to stop the flow of refugees from Turkey to Europe, so they made a deal in March where Turkey pledged they would take back people who landed on the Greek islands. In exchange, refugees would be resettled from Turkey to the EU directly and Turkey would receive £4.8bn in aid. One more of the 35 chapters to EU accession would also be opened – a symbolic gesture – and Turks would be able to travel to parts of Europe on 30-day visas subject to completing a long list of requirements (different to the requirements for EU membership but still complex and far-reaching).

What no one really mentioned is that Turkey had already been trying, and failing, to complete these changes for years. Erdogan is particularly set against one that requires him to change anti-terror laws that - critics say - he uses to silence his critics and persecute Kurds. Because the government won't change this law, Turks are not going to get visa-free access to the EU any time soon. Even if they did, that access would just be for tourism and business - it wouldn't give anyone in Turkey the right to remain in the EU. The real clincher is that the UK is exempt from giving Turkey even that visa-free access, it only applies to some other countries in the EU.

So yes, it's right to say that 76 million Turks are coming to the UK because Turkey is joining the EU. Except that Turkey doesn't meet 34 out of 35 of the criteria for joining and are very unlikely to at any point in the imaginable future. Even if it did, Turkish people are split in their opinion of membership and their government is simmering with anti-EU sentiment. Even something smaller, like Turks being given visa-free travel to Europe is pretty unlikely and, anyway, won't include the UK. But apart from that they've got it spot on.

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