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Don’t be fooled: Brexit or Bremain, both want us to fear Turkey

Ironically, Britain’s PM did not counter the slanderous comments made against Turks, but instead sought to demonstrate that he too would prevent them from entering the country.

Turks are not invading Europe. They are securing its borders! German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Turkey. Getty images/ Guido Bergmann/Bundesregierung. All rights reserved. Following allegations by the British Vote Leave campaign that Turkish immigration to the UK poses a national security threat, the Brexit campaign headed up by Justice Secretary Michael Gove has come under attack for inciting racial prejudice. The idea underlying Vote Leave’s latest campaign poster, featuring a British passport folded to look like an open door, is that unless Britain leaves the EU, it will face a wave of unwanted and potentially dangerous Turkish immigrants.

In a televised interview, David Cameron responded to the claims by reassuring voters that even if the UK remains in Europe, it will ‘veto’ Turkish accession. Ironically, the PM did not counter the slanderous comments made against Turks, but instead sought to demonstrate that he too would prevent them from entering the country. Both campaigns in the British referendum are appealing to anti-Turkish sentiment.

But instead of taking a cynical approach to the latest iteration in the Brexit debate, let us examine in earnest some of the eccentricities of the framework in which the current arguments against Turkey are being made. By making three simple observations, I would suggest a blueprint for how we might best consider the entire Brexit debate as it enters its frantic final act. Not in trying to analyze anything from the point of view of politics, but how it articulates its stance towards the fantastic outcomes of staying or leaving.

1: Turks are already a part of Europe

First, we’ve entered the bizarre world of Brexit logic where the EU is both so awful that we would be best to wash our hands of it, yet in equal measure, the EU must be defended against Turkish immigrants, who would spoil it all – so the leave campaigners would have us believe.

To counter this argument, the Tories point out that the Turks are already among us and that (contrary to expectations, it is implied) they are indeed ‘law-abiding’ ‘industrious’ citizens. Despite the somewhat patronizing tone of such rhetoric, it is undeniable that indeed Turks already live and work in Britain, and have hitherto gone largely unnoticed by English politicians.  Instead, the backlash against the Brexit allegations has emphasized, not that Turks should be integrated, but that they would be denied entry even if the UK remains in the EU.

Yet even though an estimated 500,000 people of Turkish origin live in the UK, the majority of Turks living in the UK are Turkish Cypriots, and not mainland Turks. While Turkish and British statistics on the matter differ (in 2011 Davotoglu claimed that 400,000 Turks live in the UK) the Brexit allegations focus largely on an imagined influx of mainland Turkish refugees, and neglect the diverse presence of Bulgarian, Cypriot, and Western Thrace Turks already residing in the UK, many of whom have lived here for several decades. To paint the arrival of Turks in the UK as a new phenomenon is simply false. Rather, it would appear that the spectre of Turkish immigration is being cast as a way to play upon xenophobic prejudice.

Yet recent retorts to such tactics have done little to diminish the image of Turkey as a threat to the UK. In fact, much of the rebuttal to the Brexit stance towards Turks and Turkey has focused on re-emphasizing Britain’s reluctance to embrace Turkish accession to the EU. Instead, the backlash against the Brexit allegations has emphasized, not that Turks should be integrated, but that they would be denied entry even if the UK remains in the EU.

2: Both sides in the referendum debate employ fear-mongering tactics

The antinomy of the ‘leave’ and ‘stay’ vote, and in particular its impact on the Turkish accession process, therefore appears negligible. Yet in the shared fear-mongering against Turkey we can infer a core characteristic of the EU referendum debate, which has become so utterly fixated on pointing out spectral outcomes. As a result, the promised apocalypses of either side become increasingly identical even as they grow in spectacle.

One might easily imagine the stay and leave campaign managers as Hollywood producers deliberating in a downtown LA office whether the next disaster film should be a financial meltdown sending the UK into a pre-industrial stone age, or instead a scenario in which the UK is besieged by ferocious Ottomans, not braying at the siege of Vienna, but clambering up the chalk shores of Cornwall.  In vilifying Turkish immigrants, one might well say that the Brexit campaign has made its most ‘European’ argument yet, already commonplace among the far right in continental Europe. 

As the ‘IN’ campaign struggles to formulate a response to Brexit allegations that the EU has wavered in its relationship to Turkey, allowing itself to be held hostage to the whims of President Erdogan, we must also point out that the conversation on Turkish integration or lack thereof into the EU is perhaps among the oldest of European dilemmas. In fact, in vilifying Turkish immigrants, one might well say that the Brexit campaign has made its most ‘European’ argument yet. After all the European sense of identity has become near synonymous with a fear of the immigrant other, and to treat Turkish immigrants with suspicion is already commonplace among the far right in continental Europe. 

In the Brexit debate, we therefore encounter an uncanny vacuity, a sense of stagnation that in its very lack of resolution has given animus and hence justification to all kinds of political prejudice. There is something distinctly ‘modern’ in the concept of a referendum, specifically as the debate unfolds with a certain cynical acceptance that the outcome will not have any actual effect on the status quo. As the scale of promised calamities grows, so too does the disbelief that any of it will come to pass.

The reality is that if the UK leaves Europe, an army of lawyers will be called upon to renegotiate everything from cell phone rates to the price of cucumbers. This is hardly a riveting premise by which to entice people to vote for leaving Europe. Tempting as it is, the idea of a non-European Britain is hardly one of self-regulating pastures and heritage idyll.

Seen in this light, it is only natural that the Brexit campaign would seek to focus on that age-old prejudice of the villainous and exotic Turk (hence the crime- and birth rates being touted as reasons against Turkey’s accession, i.e. they kill and multiply!) rather than formulating what a non-European Britain would actually look like.

3: Turkey has already become part of the EU security apparatus

Let us be clear. Turks are not invading Europe. They are securing its borders! Surely the current relationship with Turkey provides an unprecedented and perverse proof that the criticism of Fortress Europe was accurate, if not prescient. The majority of comment on the UK’s relationship to Europe already consists of making the EU seem either more or less viable instead of actually coming up with new ideas to make it be more viable.

There is a ludicrous banality to the entire debate on whether or not some Turks are supposedly ‘industrious’ or on the other hand ‘villainous’. Turkey is already being integrated, not culturally, but rather within the EU’s security apparatus. Why then employ xenophobic tactics towards Turks, when the same Turks are already gainfully employed in keeping Syrians out of Europe?

To argue then that the UK should leave Europe to safeguard against Turkish accession, fails to identify that the EU itself is the strongest critic of such an accession. Indeed, the longer the UK remains in the EU, the less likely that Turkey will become a member, as David Cameron has already scrambled to demonstrate to British voters, even accusing his Defence Minister of ‘lying’ about whether or not he wields the influence to do so.

So while coming to the defence of Turks in the UK, the Prime Minister is equally reassuring voters that accession will never come to pass. On Sunday morning, he announced that if the EU’s accession process continued at the current pace, it would take at least ‘until the year 3000’. Ironically, this confirms exactly the Brexit campaign’s chief accusation, which is that the EU is a stagnant and inefficient regulatory monster.

In the Brexit campaign there can surely be no such thing as a new idea, but only ones that are measured by the extent to which they reject the old. Among these, xenophobic fear-mongering is hardly a new tactic, and not an exclusively European one. Even if Brexit succeeds, new enemies will be created. One is reminded here of an old Jewish joke. Two men are walking together, when one of them points to a bearded man cross the street. “See that man? He may have a beard. But I know for a fact that underneath it he is entirely clean-shaven!”

In light of the increasingly conspiratorial tone of the Brexit allegations, one thing is already certain. And that is that when the history of the EU is written, it will focus not on its political or economic realities, but instead on the myriad ways in which the project was either vilified or justified. The majority of comment on the UK’s relationship to Europe already consists of making the EU seem either more or less viable instead of actually coming up with new ideas to make it be more viable.

In the xenophobic allegations against Turks and Turkey, we are reminded of a humorous variation on Schrödinger’s cat – which we should remember was simultaneously dead and alive.  Already, the same principle is being applied to the immigrant in xenophobic logic, who sits on the couch all day long on benefits, while simultaneously stealing jobs from British workers.

As the EU referendum looms, we can now add a distinctly European variation to this paradox. One in which Turkey is both invading Europe, while simultaneously defending it. In this, finally, the leave campaign contains at least a kernel of truth: the EU’s current relationship to Turkey is not only unsustainable, it is deeply contradictory.

About the author

Julian de Medeiros is a PhD candidate in International Relations at the University of Kent. He specializes in Turkish and Brazilian politics, and is currently researching state responses to protest movements in global swing states.


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