A perennial problem for British and European politicians has been the question of relations with Turkey. A candidate for membership of the European Union (EU) since 1987, Turkey has gone from being the budding pin-up boy of Islamic democracy, to a disgruntled neighbour which western countries cannot necessarily do without, but cannot do much with either. The emergence of Turkey as an issue in the Brexit referendum, and its occasional use as a rhetorical device by angry Remainers since, is characteristic of the emotive rhetoric that has flared since 2016. In using Turkey as a stick with which to dismiss Leave voters as ill-informed conspiracists, prejudiced, or indeed both, Remain activists showed themselves not just to be out of step with public opinion, but dangerously ill-informed themselves.
Whilst European conservatives had often doubted the wisdom of Turkish accession, in Britain there were historically few such reservations among political elites. In France, Nicolas Sarkozy took the view that a country with 98% of its land mass outside Europe, and a cultural basis rooted in an Islam that has never fully embraced liberal democracy, was suitable only for some form of associative agreement, rather than EU membership. Keeping out a country with a bigger population than any existing member state, would also ensure that the EU’s delicate political balances, and Franco-German dominance, endured.
Perhaps seeing an opportunity to upset the Paris-Bonn/Berlin axis, Britain expressed fewer concerns, and it is unlikely the United Kingdom (UK) would have ever vetoed Ankara’s accession. All three of Britain’s main parties – Conservative, Labour and the Liberal Democrats – officially supported Turkey’s EU accession. Among their number was even a youthful Boris Johnson and then Prime Minister David Cameron. From 2013-2018 the Conservatives managed to join with Erdogan’s party, the Islamist AKP, in an international grouping of like-minded parties, the Alliance of European Conservatives and Reformists. In the last declaration of the Cameron government’s position, just before the referendum, David Liddington, the then Minister of State for Europe, stated ‘The UK supports Turkey’s EU accession process, which remains the most effective mechanism for continuing reform in Turkey. Turkey’s accession itself is not on the cards for many years to come.’
This was diplomatic guff. By 2016, the most discernible reform in Turkey was a process the AKP and its Islamist partners had been spearheading since 2002, at first gradually then aggressively as Erdogan sought the establishment of a ‘pious generation’. The crushing of the 2013 Gezi Park protests was part of a broader onslaught which included the repression of journalists, academics, Kurdish representatives and opponents of the AKP’s stripe of Islamism. Despite all this, Britain continued to formally support Turkey’s membership application. During the referendum campaign, when Vote Leave’s prediction of eventual Turkish membership of the EU was dismissed as outlandish, or a position rooted in racism, there was considerable embarrassment when screenshots from the British embassy in Ankara illustrated that part of the embassy’s duties was to deploy British civil servants to assist Turkish accession. Our vote to Leave the European Union brought an end to this activity once and for all.
If a shift has occurred in attitudes towards Turkey in recent years, it has been a recognition on the European continent that Erdogan, and the organisational structures he deploys, are authoritarian. Countries working to improve the integration of sizeable Turkish minorities, especially Germany, have become exasperated by the realisation that Ankara has a different agenda, rooted in maintaining difference. Whilst liberal opinion in Britain became fixated complaining that the Leave campaign had cheated by running ‘fake news’ conspiracy theories Turkey would join the EU, the Austrian, Dutch, German and Swiss governments were wrestling with more immediate issues. All objected to or moved against pro-AKP rallies on their territory. With Turkey’s President banned from political campaigning in Germany, the wily Erdogan simply flew to the UK, to be pictured with two German footballers of Turkish heritage, Ilkay Gundogan and Mesut Ozil. The German Football Association, which had once used Ozil as an example of the successful integration of minorities, was aghast.
Erdogan’s intentions are not merely to avoid the integration of Turkish minorities living in Europe, or to ensure they keep voting for his party. Aggressive intelligence operations against Turkish and Kurdish dissidents are now conducted on the soil of supposedly friendly countries (although Turkey remains a NATO member) and pro-government exile organisations, such as Milli Gorus in Germany, hold strongly anti-western, anti-democratic and anti-Semitic positions. The relationship between Ankara and Muslim Brotherhood related groups, across the world, is deepening and the Diyanet, Turkey’s Ministry of Religious Affairs, works tirelessly to maintain its interpretation of religious orthodoxy, at home and overseas. These developments have led analyst Lorenzo Vidino to conclude Turkey is ‘pursuing interests and promoting views within Muslim communities that are on a collision course with those of European governments.’
Through the good sense of those who voted to leave the EU in 2016, the UK is no longer encouraging the myth that future political and economic integration with Turkey is desirable or possible. Rather than wasting time arguing about whether it was ever a likely candidate for EU accession, debate now needs to move to the next level. Is it wise to continue in a military alliance, NATO, with Turkey? The strategic importance of Turkey is such that in military terms, its departure would be a grievous blow to an alliance that has worked successfully, for so long. Moscow would be delighted at such a development. There are also contrary arguments – most importantly that the Erdogan project is past its peak. The 2019 election of an opposition mayor in a twice-run contest in Istanbul appeared a body blow for a leader without an obvious, capable successor. But if Erdogan has succeeded in rooting his authoritarian politico-religious beliefs in the country, does NATO wish to be tied to a country whose values are increasingly different in nature to its own?
Dr Paul Stott is a Research Fellow in the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism at the Henry Jackson Society, and a Tutor in the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at SOAS University of London.