EU: Turkey In, UK Out?
Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 15th December, 2015
The European Union is an ever-evolving organism and is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future as it adapts to a changing world. Some challenges, such as increasing competition from emerging economies, can be planned for; others, such as the current refugee and migrant crisis, are less predictable and require some pretty nifty footwork by member states, both individually and collectively. Meanwhile, the geographical boundaries of the EU remain potentially fluid following two significant recent developments: the re-opening of talks with Turkey that have given new life to the possibility of Turkey’s accession to EU membership, on the one hand, and the troubled progress of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s campaign for EU reform in the run-up to an IN/OUT referendum that could see Britain leave the Union, on the other. Both these developments have huge implications for the future of the EU.
Ever since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk effectively forged the Republic of Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire the country has largely looked westwards rather than eastwards for its political and economic models, including the adoption of pluralist democracy and the free market economy, despite intermittent periods of military government and aspects of democratic deficit. Ankara’s aspiration to join the EU was acknowledged decades ago but the process stalled largely because of resistance from countries including Germany, France and Austria. But in Germany’s case, notably, that resistance has weakened and there seems to be a growing sense that it is better to have a dynamic Turkey inside the EU working with other member states rather than having a resentful Turkey outside, making its mark as a Middle Eastern rather than a European power. Even though negotiations with Turkey are unlikely to come to a conclusion any time soon, nonetheless there is now the possibility that the EU will take in a country that is not only more populous than any current member state, including Germany, but also overwhelmingly Muslim. Both these facts would undoubtedly change the nature of the EU.
But so too would a British withdrawal. Although the UK stayed aloof from the nascent European Economic Community, largely out of fears that this would damage relations with the Commonwealth, it has been a member since 1973 and several continental leaders have stated that an EU without Britain is unthinkable. Alas, the unthinkable is now a real possibility. Succumbing to pressure from his own rebellious backbenchers, Prime Minister David Cameron made what now seems a rash promise to hold a referendum on whether Britain should remain within the EU or leave, to be held before the end of 2017. Although one would not necessarily know it from statements Mr Cameron makes, he is generally understood to be in favour of staying in the EU. But he sent a letter to other EU heads of government outlining four demands for reform, one of which was self-evidently unacbievable, as presumably his civil servants would have told him. Inevitably he is now having to retreat on that fourth demand, that EU migrants in the UK should have to wait four years before qualifying for benefits. The problem is that whereas a few months ago opinion polls suggested that voters would choose to stay in the EU, recent surveys indicate the opposite, albeit by a small margin. The government will be unable to give a firm steer in the campaign as several Cabinet Ministers have indicated that they will campaign to leave and Mr Cameron has promised them the freedom to do so. So it is going to be up to all the opposition parties to put the other case, along with business leaders and civil society organisations. There is a powerful message to put across, that Britain should lead not leave when it comes to the EU. But there is no guarantee that it will win over a majority of the British public, which would mean the UK will be isolated from the future evolution of the EU for better or for worse (the latter, in my view).