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Turkey and Brexit: why everyone's talking about Turkey and the EU

As Britain’s EU referendum draws nearer, the “Remain” and “Leave” camps are becoming ever determined to push their respective points, resorting to some fairly below-the-belt tactics. We explain why the Turkey-EU issue is such a hotpoint for next month’s Brexit, and explore the Turkey-EU relationship.

The Brexit and Turkey

Turkey has become a key talking point on both sides of the EU Referendum. Last week,  Justice secretary Michael Gove claimed if Britain voted to stay in the European Union, the country would be opening its gates to up to over five million Turks desperate to live in the UK, who will have increased access via the introduction of the Schengen visa and possible EU accession.

This statement has been heavily criticised for its overtones of racial prejudice. It’s also short on facts: critics have pointed out that for Gove’s figures to be a reality Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and Macedonia, as well as Turkey, would all have to join the EU by 2020, with the UK not imposing any transitional immigration controls. And the UK is not a Schengen state, which not only means Schengen visa holders can’t travel there, but can’t work there, even with EU membership.

The Remain campaign has described Gove’s warning as “desperate” as well as “hypocritical”, with PM David Cameron announcing that Turkey was not on the verge of joining the EU. "It is not remotely on the cards that Turkey is going to join the EU at any time soon," Cameron said. "They applied in 1987. At the current rate of progress, they'd probably get round to joining in about the year 3000."  

Like all member states, the United Kingdom also has a veto on potential EU entries.

Turkey and EU membership

How likely is Turkey’s EU membership?

To most Turks, Gove’s statements have come as a big surprise. Turkey first applied to join the European Union in 1987, but it wasn’t until 12 years later the country was officially recognised as a candidate. Six years later, in 2005, formal negotiations began, but rapidly stalled. Which is where we’re at now - and explains Cameron’s “year 3000” statement.

Turkey's agreement to rehome Syrian refugees comes at a price: increased movement for Turks around Europe, and resumption of EU talks. However, the stumbling block for Turkey has always been meeting the EU rules and standards. This is done in stages, with the country agreeing to each of 35 chapters. After almost 30 years, just one negotiating chapter has been agreed with Turkey. Another 15 are theoretically open for discussion, while talks about the remainder - the most thorny parts - have not even been touched on.

The main reason Turkey’s accession has stalled is down to France and Germany, who do not want Turkey to join. In 2007, then-French president Nicolas Sarkozy blocked talks, arguing that Turkey had no place in the EU due to its geographical location. His successor is of a similar mind.

German chancellor Angela Merkel also opposes Turkish membership, although has used the incentive of resumed negotiations - and the Schengen visa - to broker a deal with Turkey in exchange for accepting the return of Syrian refugees who have crossed the Aegean to Greece. However, her basic position remains: Turkey should not be granted full membership.

What would Turkey bring to the EU?

While both sides of the referendum prefer to focus on the negatives of Turkey's accession, it's worth noting there are some decidedly convincing plus points for Turkey's EU membership

  • A strong economy: Turkey's economy is steady, with a healthy GDP. Economic conditions are very favourable, which means the working population is less likely to leave for the weaker economy of the UK.
  • Security: the rise in the Islamic State has meant Turkey’s role in security is pivotal. Some European officials believe Turkey’s EU membership will mean a strong ally in the region.
  • Employment: Turkey’s young and increasingly well-educated population can help boost ageing EU countries.
  • A bridge: being at the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East means Turkey’s in a unique cultural and geographic position, a possible bridge between two worlds at the time of heightened tensions between the two.
  • Trade: a number of key pipelines cross Turkey, delivering oil and gas from Asia. Free trade within the EU is one of the bloc’s best advantages and allowing Turkey entry would create a new market for European goods, and allow EU countries to enjoy lower priced resources.

Turkey’s view

Within Turkey, support for EU membership is not as high as Brexiters would like you to think. In fact, while Turks were pro-membership before the year 2000, support has plummeted.

Turkey’s economy is very strong, living standards have changed beyond recognition in the last 20 years. Joining the EU - which has not been too stable in the last few years - is not a universally attractive option, with many commentators are concerned a membership would have a negative impact on Turkey’s independently strong economy. 

While many Turks are in favour of the freedom of movement and increased wealth membership could bring, the last decade or so have brought increased skepticism in the EU and cast doubt on whether the benefits would outweigh the negatives.


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