By Yavuz Yavuz
Obedient to pressure from both his own Conservative party and far-right UKIP, British Prime Minister David Cameron cobbled together a parliamentary majority for a referendum on Brexit. Today, votes are being cast to answer the question of whether Britain should leave the EU. Speculation has been rife, and the outcome remains uncertain.
Britain joined the European Economic Community – destined to become the EU – in 1973, although the EU wasn’t inaugurated until 1993. There has been ongoing debate about whether or not this was a good thing for Britain since day one.
A referendum like today’s was held in 1975, and 67% voted to remain. Fast forward 41 years, and we have British voters answering the same question, yet with the distinct possibility of voters going the other way.
The vote is split between ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’. A critical part of the discussions is about the ongoing refugee protection crisis. Because of the EU-Turkey deal brokered by Germany’s Angela Merkel, effectively exchanging refugee support for EU perks for Turkey, Turkey has inadvertently come to play a significant role in the Brexit debate.
This is especially so with the conservative ‘Vote Leave’ campaign, which has used the alleged threat that Turkey’s ‘high level of criminality’ might infiltrate the UK if Turkey is granted visa-free travel within the EU.
The far-right media has latched onto these ideas, seen in tabloid headlines, such as the Sunday Express’s claim that ‘12m Turks say they’ll come to UK.’ Later, they admitted the title had been inaccurate however such disinformation has characterised the debate and may well lead to an ill-informed British exit from the Union.
Such right-wing media is adding to the ‘Vote Leave’ campaigners’ anti-immigration stance by depicting them as a threat to British sovereignty. This has reached unsettling lengths throughout the campaign, such as in a recent UKIP poster showing refugees marching through Slovenia in 2015, with a subtitle that read, ‘We must break free of the EU and take back control of our borders’, as well as the leave campaign’s deliberately misleading poster indicating not only Turkey, but Syria and Iraq, are on the verge of joining the EU.
The extremist elements of the ‘Vote Leave’ camp was tragically acted out in the assassination of Jo Cox last week, an MP strongly involved in refugee assistance and protection in Britain.
The ‘Vote Leave’ camp’s attitude to Turkey is thus part of anti-immigration sentiment more generally, rather than a comment on Turkey itself. In response, the ‘Vote Remain’ camp has gone to lengths to show how far-fetched Turkey’s prospective EU membership aims are. In part, this has been done through drawing attention to, for example, Turkey’s anti-democratic culture, with its repression of freedom speech and political competition.
Such comments have caused a backlash in Turkey however, especially by government and pro-government pundits who use them to bolster anti-EU sentiments. Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, who asked rhetorically, “Why would they [the UK] put the question to leave to a vote if the EU is so favourable?”, or President Erdoğan raising the possibility of putting Turkey’s continuing membership negotiations to a public vote, somewhat of a political mockery given the context.
The Brexit referendum has exposed and fuelled increasingly xenophobic sentiments in the UK and Europe more generally, which are in turn affecting EU-Turkey relations.
Such sentiments not only affect refugees in the UK and EU, already alienated by the readmission deal between EU and Turkey which came into effect despite concerns raised by human rights organizations. They also give President Erdoğan and the AKP considerable room to bolster their anti-EU agenda, a tactic used to avoid the oversight of the international community over human rights and democracy concerns in Turkey.
The debates that Brexit has triggered in the UK have unwittingly also further alienated Turkey from EU. What this will translate into for Turkey remains to be seen. For Britain, today could be Brexit, or it could mean a sticky return to the right-wing residues for the ‘Vote Leave’ campaign.