As both the Brexit and Bremain campaigns seek to convince British voters of their tough stance on Turkey – and their refusal to consider visa-free travel, let alone full EU accession – the issue of Turkish visa liberalization has entered the mainstream of British political debate.
Following recent accusations on behalf of the ‘Vote Leave’ group, headed by justice secretary Michael Gove, that staying in the EU would enable a wave of Turkish immigrants to arrive in Britain, the Brexit campaign has been accused of inciting racial prejudice.
Yet in a televised interview, Prime Minister David Cameron assured voters that even if the UK were to remain in the European Union, the Turkish accession process would likely continue ‘until the year 3000’.
As the date for a British referendum on EU memberships comes ever closer, the EU’s contentious relationship with Turkey is coming under intense scrutiny, with xenophobic concerns largely outweighing more nuanced criticisms of the EU’s own ambiguous role in the refugee crisis.
In the current situation, Turkey is clearly having its cake and eating it too, sensing that control over the refugee crisis is its ultimate trump card over the EU. But should we not alternately be pleased, that Turkey is finally being integrated into the EU, even if this has only proven possible as the European dread of Syrian immigrants overshadows the previous fear, which was that of the Turkish immigrant?
But before answering this, let us not fall all too readily into false platitudes. After all, the cake that Turkey is eating is not it’s own, and the dilemma of the current impasse lies in fact much closer to home. Even as all the action is taking place on Turkey’s doorstep, this does not mean that we can lay the entire issue solely at Turkish feet.
EU: Utopia or Distopia?
In the early 1970s, animation studio Walt Disney pictures made its first foray into educational publishing, producing a hardcover collectible series entitled The Wonderful World of Knowledge. The series, an encyclopaedia of sorts, featured Donald Duck and his nephews explaining the world as seen through children’s eyes. In the volume on National Holidays, the entry for Turkey reads as follows:
In Turkey on April 23rd, children’s day is celebrated. On this day children are the most important people in the country. They are given free movies and free rides, and a free ball is held in their honour. But best of all, they’re permitted to act as government officials (we wish they’d do that in Duckburg once in a while. We’d have free ice-cream and popcorn stands all over.).
Duckburg aside, it appears undeniable that if the EU grants visa-free travel to Turkey, it will provide Erdogan with a victory that couldn’t be matched by all the ice cream and pop-corn in the world.
Yet as the EU stands divided on whether to grant Turkey visa-free travel, on top of the six billion in earmarked aid (that cattle-invoking hallmark of bureaucratic jargon), might we not too feel like the denizens of Duckburg? For exactly as the EU chooses to ignore the evident failure of the Turkish state to comply with the requirements for such free travel, one can only marvel at the gifts that are given but also the way in which the political elite is allowed to play at being government officials. Presumably not just for a day.
Of course this analogy is patronizing. Yet the EU’s stance towards Turkey is undeniably equally patronizing. However, if we simply dismiss Turkey’s political elite as childlike, we would fall into a double trap: blindness to the moral bankruptcy of both Turkish leaders and EU policy makers.
In the context of the refugee crisis, the stakes are much too high for that. The vacuity of the power relationship therefore only reveals itself as ambiguous once we begin to question to what extent the EU relies on Turkey’s failure to democratize as a justifying principle for its own superiority. At this point the moral relationship reveals itself as a self-closing loop of opposition, which resolves as alliance: a moebius strip of sorts. The more Turkey acts in defiance of so-called EU standards, the more the EU can reassure itself that these liberal standards remain alive and well.
A Perverse Win-Win
Instead, it is the circumstances under which this so-called ‘liberalization’ is taking place that should irk us. Proponents of the liberalization deal argue that it is really unfortunate that this debate is taking place against the backdrop of the refugee crisis.
Yet these concerns are misguided and misleading. The refugee crisis itself is what allows liberalization proposals to move forward. Without the refugee crisis there would be no incentive for the EU to consider visa-free travel in the first place. The refugee crisis is not a backdrop, it is the underlying reason for the entire episode. On the other hand, to accuse Turkey of blackmailing the EU misses the full picture. To the contrary, the more Turkey botches the handling of the refugee crisis, the more Europe sees itself reconfirmed in is moral superiority. Having been incapable of addressing the refugee crisis directly, the EU has outsourced the problem to Turkey, allowing them to be the straw man for anything that goes wrong in the process.
Perversely, one might conclude that the situation is a win-win. After all, the headlines in European newspapers now decry the Turkish treatment of refugees, instead of the EU’s failure to tackle the crisis. In turn this fits perfectly compliments the picture of Erdogan’s Turkey as ‘un-European’, while equally reconfirming its strength in the eyes of the government’s loyalists.
In this, Turkey has clearly internalized the lesson of the Blair-doctrine of ‘never letting a serious crisis go to waste’. Indeed, the Turkish political elite have done so well in this regard that they took the Blairite opportunism to its logical conclusion, which is to not only benefit from disaster, but to actively court it.
As such, the Turkish opportunism in the refugee deal can hardly be framed as an accusation. Similar to what is said about Palestinian intransigence to ‘never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity’, shouldn’t this rather be that Turks never waste a crisis without begetting one? While this may seem unfair, as long as the EU can benefit from having Turkey do its dirty work, it will make it seem as if the Turks are the extortionists.
But let us not ignore the fact that the entire EU accession debate always rested on a patronizing principle in which the European Union would ‘judge’ at what time Turkey would meet the requirements set out under the self-professed European ‘ideal’ political identity. The expectation that Turkey would internally reform to meet European standards without concrete incentives now seems remarkably naïve.
The important realization here is not that the deal with Turkey is what constitutes this lapse retroactively. It is the moral bankruptcy itself that enables the Turkey refugee deal. In other words, both the EU and the UK have much to gain by pointing towards Turkey’s lacklustre democratization. After all, it distracts from their own incapability to resolve the refugee crisis in a way that would be compatible with so-called EU values.
The important realization here is not that the deal with Turkey is what constitutes this lapse retroactively. It is the moral bankruptcy itself that enables the Turkey refugee deal. Whether or not the UK wants Turkey to become part of the EU becomes largely irrelevant, as in many ways it has already become integrated into the EU’s security apparatus.
Of course the irony is that David Cameron only wants to stay in Europe exactly so that he can prevent Turkey from becoming a member state. When it comes to Turkey, the Brexit and the Bremain campaigns have more in common than they like to admit. Both would like for Turkey to serve Europe, but not be a part of it.