Why Brexiters got Turkey’s accession to the EU wrong

Turkey claims in the referendum were based on scaremongering, not evidence


If there is one message the result of the EU referendum imparted, it’s how little we factually understand the EU, and yet expected people to make a lasting decision on it.

A referendum of this nature unquestionably required a deeper examination of UK-EU relations, intelligible evidence and better campaigning methods.

We are now faced with an outcome some in the Remain camp refuse to acknowledge (myself included) and some in the Leave camp regret ministering.

The country is experiencing an existential crisis in coming to terms with a divided population, vague leadership and an ambivalent direction on next steps.

What has been one of the most interesting characteristics of all this is the way in which, from the beginning of the EU referendum campaign, the British public have been deluged by copious amounts of information on the perils of leaving and staying within the EU.

The most noteworthy feature though was hostile rhetoric on Turkey’s accession to the EU.

Leave campaigners asserted Turkey ‘is joining’ the EU and that it would put Brits at ‘greater risk at crime’, as well as flood the country with 75 million immigrants. The Remain camp inversely claimed Turkey could not ‘expect to join the EU until the year 3000’.

Though the latter argument is visibly more precise, both positions have no factual evidence to support them.

Turkey is not joining the EU anytime soon for manifold reasons. Since the commencement of the country’s accession process in 2005, it has only closed one chapter (on science and research) out of 35 chapters.

When a country moves on to formal membership negotiations (Turkey in 2005) it must first be qualified to adopt EU laws. The candidate country’s judicial, administrative, economic, education, external relations, social policy, environment and many others must be restructured to meet the conditions for joining.

Not one single chapter in the negotiation phase can be closed without the agreement of each EU government.

Though the EU has began a new phase in Turkey’s membership bid on June 30, (as highlighted by the Leave campaign shortly before the referendum), Turkey is a long way off becoming an official EU member.

Vote Leave Turkey poster

Turkey, as a key member of NATO, is undergoing continuing security challenges as a result of an increase in terror attacks in the last year, and increasing security concerns in the region.

The three-decade-old conflict with the PKK has resulted in mass casualties in the last few months, including several government-imposed curfews in southeastern Kurdish towns.

The spilling war in neighbouring Syria and the handling of Syrian refugees despite the deal with the EU signed in March 2016 seems to be moving Turkey further away from EU accession.

Even if Turkey has begun opening negotiation chapters with the EU, every EU government still holds a veto power before closing each chapter, including the British Prime Minister, if the UK were to remain an EU member.

This scenario also stands bleak as France and Austria have alluded they would hold a referendum in their respective countries on Turkey’s EU accession.

The EU itself has raised concerns about Turkey’s human rights violations in its 2015 Turkish report, particularly on the rights of minorities, the challenges to freedom on expression, (Turkey ranks 151st among 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index, above Malaysia and Thailand), and the right to freedom of assembly.

Use of Turkey’s accession to the EU in the referendum debate – or more rightly, urging voters to fear Turkey will join the EU – was largely based on over-simplified arguments.

As with the other promises which formed the basis of the Leave campaign now being shelved, Turkey’s accession to the EU was never really on the table.

Gülüs Egilmez is a former researcher at the Centre for Policy and Research on Turkey with a Masters Degree in International Politics. Follow her on Twitter @gulusez

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