The Guardian asked me to write something about Turkey and Brexit in the event of Brexit, and of course I though that was never going to happen. Eugh. But I was very happy to get to write something after all so I wrote about Britain and Turkey as two fringe nations on opposite sides of Europe – in more ways than one…
Unedited version below or the final version here.
So, it happened. Brexit is upon us. The politics of fear won the day – the Turks are no longer coming. As we come to terms with the idea that the long EU divorce process is about to get going, Turkey – the country whose people we are apparently petrified of – is still plodding on with the longest engagement in history.
Despite all the bile spewed about the country during the Leave campaign, it turns out Britain and Turkey are not so different after all. Like Britain, Turkey blames the EU for many of its ills. The slow speed with which their accession into the union has progressed is often seen as a deliberate move by the British, the US and the EU itself to undermine Turkish power. It is frequently referred to as a Christian expansion project, a union that exists to assert Christian ideals and dominance over the world. “Europe, you don’t want us because the majority of our population are Muslim,” President Erdoğan said at a graduation ceremony in Istanbul on the eve of the Brexit vote.
He also suggested holding a referendum on the country leaving the EU before they’ve even joined – TRexit, of course. “We can stand up and ask the people just like the British are doing,” Erdoğan said. With Frexit – France – also mentioned, and Nexit – the Netherlands – this may be the beginning of a worrying trend.
Also like Britain, Turkey sees itself as a country whose ideals are constantly under threat from outside forces. Turkey would be the world super power, if it wasn’t for those pesky Americans, Russians, Europeans… everyone. The idea that British secret service plots work to constrain Turkey is common. “It might sometimes look like it is Russia or the USA that is behind things. But they are all controlled by the British secret state,” Adnan Oktar, also known as Harun Yahya, a televangelist and leader of an Islamist sex cult – that really is a thing – once tweeted. To which British Ambassador to Turkey Richard Moore amusingly responded, “So now you know…”.
Yet, despite all this, Turkey’s EU talks have been championed by Britain. Jack Straw led the negotiations in 2005 when Turkey’s membership talks were officially given the go ahead. He even hugged then Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül in celebration, and was later awarded the Order of the Republic – the highest honor a foreign national can be awarded. Many British politicians have championed their bid. Cameron said in 2012 it was unfair that Turkey was being asked to “guard camp, but not allowed to sit in the tent”. It’s no wonder then, Turkey felt betrayed at being used as an excuse for Brexit.
It was Cameron saying that Turkey will join the bloc “in about the year 3000” that really stung – pro-government journalists scrambled to write things along the lines of, ‘see, told you everyone hates us’. Speaking on Newsnight via video link on Tuesday, Erdoğan’s chief advisor İlnur Çevik, said, “The French said we don’t want you. Many countries said this. But the way Mr Cameron put it we feel really, really taken in,” adding, “That kind of attitude really is deeply hurting the Turks”.
“Why should we be flooding Britain?” he said, on the much touted, but largely mythical, imminent invasion of Turkish migrants to the UK. “There’s no reason. Whatever exists in Britain also exists in Turkey. We’re not going to go there just because you produce Cadbury’s chocolates and Maltesers, for god’s sake”.
Turkey didn’t want Britain to leave, but our exit may well dent their EU ambitions enough for them to give up all together. “The fragmentation process of the EU has started. Britain was the first to abandon ship,” Deputy Prime Minister Nurettin Canikli said on Twitter. This all plays right into the hands Erdoğan, who seems to have gone off the EU and instead dreams of building a neo-Ottoman style Muslim union with him at its helm. “The people in Greece, Romania, Bulgaria are saying, ‘Forget about the EU, what could be the new scenario with Turkey?’” another of his advisors, Yiğit Bulut, said earlier this month. “Maybe the governments cannot speak about it because of the German government’s oppression, but people … have started to talk about how they will be ruled from Istanbul”.
Having been shunned by Germany and France in the past, held back by Austria, it doesn’t seem far-fetched to say that Turkey might change direction, or that the EU mıght not well give up on Turkey, too. Far right leaders across Europe are rejoicing at Brexit as a victory for “freedom”, which doesn’t bode well for Turkey.
Ironically to all those who wanted to keep Britain as far apart from Turkey as possible, Brexit could in fact improve relations between the two countries. Britain and Turkey as two fringe nations on opposite sides of Europe, in more ways than one. Both are united by growing romantic nationalism. Perhaps Turkey could even pick up some of the trade slack when we do eventually pull out – investment and exports between the two countries are already high.
If nothing else, Brexit may at least fight claims of the EU being an elitist Christian club. Turkish nationalists understand arguments of sovereignty and have backed the campaign. But with nationalists also threatening the freedoms of Turks who don’t fit their plan – LGBT people and Radiohead fans, to name but a few – is that really a side we want to be on?