The Leave campaign sees the EU-Turkey accession talks as a reason to drum up fears about migration. In fact, it is a red herring. True, David Cameron may have previously been one of the most vocal champions for Turkish EU membership, even if during the referendum campaign he said that Turkey will not join 'until the year 3000'. But despite his apparent contradiction, he is right about one thing: Turkish membership is a long way off.
So what do the accession talks look like as they stand? They are made up of 35 chapters in all but so far only one chapter – on science and research co-operation – has been successfully negotiated. Fourteen chapters are effectively off limits due to vetoes by Cyprus and others. Sixteen chapters have been opened, including one as part of the recently agreed refugee deal between Ankara and Brussels. But Turkey’s progress on aligning its legislation with the EU has been snail-paced.
Besides, many EU countries oppose Turkey joining the EU. Cyprus is perhaps most obviously against Turkish membership and the Cyprus issue remains perhaps the thorniest obstacle. Though relations are improving between the two groups on the divided island, an agreement between Greek and Turkish Cypriots remains elusive. Until then Cyprus will block any meaningful progress in the accession talks. Elsewhere, France, the Netherlands and others are deeply sceptical too. The French government has repeatedly hinted at holding a referendum on the issue, which would almost certainly be won by the ‘Non’ camp. Dutch voters rejected the EU’s association agreement with Ukraine in April 2016 because of concerns that it would advance Ukrainian EU membership, amongst other things. The Dutch are similarly unsympathetic towards Turkish membership and would block it in a referendum. Germany has been critical too, and the mood has not improved after the Bundestag recognised the Armenian genocide on June 2nd. Some Central and Eastern European governments cringe at the prospect of an influx of non-Christian migrants. If Cameron wins the referendum and reverts to his earlier enthusiasm about Turkish membership, he would face a wall of resistance across Europe.
Pointing to a leaked diplomatic cable, Brexiters say that visa-free access to the Schengen zone – offered under the recent refugee deal – will be accompanied by similar steps in the UK. The Leave campaign, wrongly, has inflated a suggestion by a diplomat to the status of inevitable policy. Even so, visa-free access to the EU for 90 days is not the same as getting residency in Europe. Ankara must fulfil 72 technical criteria to qualify for visa liberalisation. This is not a done deal. The resignation of the EU’s ambassador to Ankara on June 14th does not bode well.
European politicians and policymakers are rightly worried about Turkey’s increasing authoritarianism. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is in pursuit of complete and unchallenged control over the Turkish state. His government tear-gassed civil rights protestors, censored the internet, shut down newspapers and jailed journalists. He had his prime minister replaced with someone more obedient. His recent push to cancel constitutional immunity for elected parliamentarians suggests he will go after pro-Kurdish politicians next. Besides, it is unclear whether Erdogan actually wants Turkey to join the EU, or whether he prefers to use the accession process as a means to extract benefits from Europe, when convenient.
But, failing a better plan, the accession process is one of the few levers Europe has to put pressure on Ankara to reform, however unsuccessful that may currently look. A stable, democratic Turkey is also in Britain’s interests. Should Britons vote for Brexit, it would further weaken Europe’s influence in Ankara. The EU without the UK is a less attractive club for Turkey to join. The less likely it becomes that the EU would ever admit Turkey, the less leverage Brussels has to secure Turkish help with the refugee crisis or to push Ankara on democratic reforms and human rights. The EU-Turkey relationship is a complex one, but Turkish EU membership is decades off, if ever. Don’t be fooled by the Brexit rhetoric.
Rem Korteweg is senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform
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