Melanie McDonagh

The collective amnesia over Turkey and the EU is astonishing

The collective amnesia over Turkey and the EU is astonishing
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Just wondering: is there anyone out there who actually remembers supporting Turkish membership of the EU? Last night Sadiq Khan said the Brexit camp had been scaremongering with its 'big fat lie' that Turkey would join any time soon. (NB: Sadiq was a bit free with the 'lie' word; a generation ago, its use would have caused real offence; two generations ago he’d have been called out by the person he accused of being a liar. Ruth Davidson was more measured with her use of 'untruth'.)  And Boris Johnson did look a bit abashed, though his retort ('I am a Turk') got lost in the exchanges. For he too was one of the most eloquent supporters of the Turkish bid when he was editor of this paper.

But back in 2005 when Jack Straw, as Foreign Secretary, saw to it that Turkey was accepted as a candidate nation, everyone, but everyone, was in favour, from the Telegraph to the Tablet and including, I am sorry to say, The Spectator, plus all the major political parties  ie, everyone except Ukip.

I remember vividly a BBC Radio 4 reporter at the time dismissing opponents of the move as those who wanted to keep the EU 'a Christian club' – and you should have heard the contempt in his voice. Jack Straw got his way, of course, and it was interesting to hear his BBC interview afterwards discussing his victory; it had been good timing, he observed, that Croatia had sought EU membership at the same time, because allowing Croatia in had helped to buy off Austrian opposition. (Can I just observe, in passing, that Croatia is actually European – like Albania and Macedonia – whereas only three per cent of Turkey is actually in Europe?)

I can rehearse the arguments now: letting Turkey in ('Let Turkey in' was a favourite leader headline) was a way of showing that it was possible for a Muslim state to be a flourishing democracy; it would acknowledge Turkey’s strategic importance between east and west; it would promote the protection of human rights about which Turkey was a bit iffy. I felt rather alone as a right little Cassandra warning everyone that they were nuts: that Turkey had a population of 75 million and rising – freedom of movement, eh? - and a semi-permeable border with Syria and Iraq.

What no-one, but no-one, said at the time was that it would be the year 3000 AD before Turkey got in and that every sane EU country would exercise its veto to prevent it happening, or even, given the glacial speed with which Turkey fulfils the membership criteria, there was no possibility it would join in the foreseeable future. (See G. Osborne, D. Cameron, R. Davidson, S. Khan, B. Johnson passim, and 10,000 others.)

Thank God, then, for the Turkish president, who alone seems not to be affected by the universal amnesia on this one. Recep Erdogan’s chief aide, Ilnur Chevik, has now mentioned that 'we thought Mr Cameron was our chief supporter in quest for EU membership'. And small wonder, my friend. Because that’s exactly what he said. Repeatedly. Indeed he went not once, but twice, to Turkey as PM to emphasise how terrifically committed he was to securing Turkey’s accession. Not in the remote future, but in the foreseeable future. I won’t bore you by quoting him on this – I’ve done it here before – but there was a conspicuous dearth of caveats about timing, or indeed anything else.

The question is, was the PM wholly insincere then, or now? I, unlike Mr Khan, am reluctant to use the L-word for politicians. But on this it’s hard to think of an alternative.