I support Brexit but the Turkey bashing needs to stop

There are a million good reasons for Britain to leave the EU but the prospect of Turkey’s accession isn’t one of them.

Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson poses as he launches the Vote Leave Bus Tour in St Austell, Cornwall, Britain [EPA]
Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson poses as he launches the Vote Leave Bus Tour in St Austell, Cornwall, Britain [EPA]

On June 23, the British people will go to the polls to decide if they want to remain part of the European Union or if they want to leave it – otherwise known as Brexit.

To make their case, the “remain” camp has resorted to exaggerated scaremongering dubbed Project Fear. Everything from World War III, economic depression, genocide in Europe, and climate catastrophes have been predicted if the UK leaves the EU.

However, those supporting Brexit are not completely innocent.

For them the bogeyman is Turkey. In the media, during speeches, on campaign posters needlessly bashing the Turks has become commonplace.

Brexit: Au revoir Europe? – Head to Head

Even though Ankara is nowhere close to joining the EU, many supporters of Brexit have painted a picture of Turkey filled with criminals and terrorists who are just waiting to move to the UK.

The Turkey bashing is short-sighted and wrong. At times it has undertones of racism and xenophobia.

Independence for Britain

I say this as someone who wholeheartedly hopes that the UK votes to leave the EU later this month.

For those that believe in the ideas of direct elections, accountable politicians, good use of taxpayer money, and power and decision-making brought down to the lowest level possible, many developments taking place today in Europe would come as a concern.

READ MORE: Why the West must embrace Turkey, not push it away

The EU, an organisation which started out narrowly focused on the coal and steel industry in the 1950s, has now morphed into a supranational organisation touching almost every aspect of life in Europe.

Boris Johnson [EPA]

The key decision-making bodies in the EU are largely unelected and largely unaccountable to the national governments. EU laws and regulations are increasingly viewed as unnecessary, intrusive, and burdensome.

During a period of time when social media, globalisation, the internet, and mass communication are bringing more power down to the people, the EU seems to be heading in the opposite direction by centralising more power at the top. This goes against the natural state of affairs.

The United Kingdom has the world’s fifth largest economy, the world’s fifth largest defence budget, and a permanent seat on the UN Security Council.

The incessant Turkey bashing shows a real lack of strategic thinking in some quarters of the UK.

But thanks to its EU membership, its parliament and courts can be overruled, they cannot sign their own free trade deals, and they cannot control their own borders.

It is no wonder why many in the UK want to leave the EU.

Think strategically

The incessant Turkey bashing shows a real lack of strategic thinking in some quarters of the UK.

Under the heading “Military and Strategic Concerns” a memo in 1979 told Margaret Thatcher on her second day as Prime Minister: “If Turkey abandons her Western orientation, a number of strongly adverse military consequences would follow for the West.”

READ MORE: Germany’s Armenian resolution – Unlawful and harmful

More than three decades later this is still true, especially when it comes to Turkey’s role in NATO.

Turkey has the second largest military in NATO after the US and the largest military in Europe. The UK and Turkey share common challenges such as a resurgent Russia and an emboldened ISIL.

The Turks have twice commanded the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan and have sent thousands of troops to serve under the NATO flag in multiple military operations. Turkey is crucial for NATO’s missile defence and Ankara contributes to NATO’s rapid reaction capabilities.

Furthermore, Turkey has close cultural and economic relations with the Central Asian Republics in the heart of Eurasia – a region becoming increasingly important.

Decades of cooperation

Without a doubt Europe’s and Britain’s relationship with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is complex. Many of the actions of Erdogan’s government, especially when it comes to the crackdown of media freedoms, sits uncomfortably with many in London – and for good reason.

The UK cannot let the actions of one leader undermine decades of cooperation.

But the UK cannot let the actions of one leader undermine decades of cooperation.

The UK needs close relations with Turkey today for the same reasons outlined in that 1979 memo to Margaret Thatcher. Like it or not, this is the geopolitical reality and the leaders of the Brexit campaign need to acknowledge this.

There are a million good reasons why the UK should leave the EU. Turkey one day joining is not one of them.

Owing to French, German and Austrian resistance – even xenophobia – it will be decades before Turkey joins the EU.

Anyway, if Turkey some day gets an invitation to join the EU why would they even want to?

Most sensible people normally try to escape from a sinking ship, not climb on board one.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan flanked by his wife Emine Erdogan [Reuters]

Turkey’s Brexit contribution

Those supporting Brexit should be thanking Turkey for its major contribution to the “leave” campaign.

One of the most high-profile supporters of Brexit is part Turkish himself: former London Mayor and Member of Parliament Boris Johnson.

Johnson is the great grandson of Ali Kemal Bey, the former journalist and Ottoman interior minister (briefly in 1919) who was killed in 1922.

Historically speaking, the UK and Turkey have enjoyed close relations. In fact, until recently the British Conservative Party – the main supporter of Brexit today – was probably the strongest supporter in Western Europe for Turkey’s eventual membership into the EU.

Since voting power in the EU is based on population, some British politicians thought that Turkey’s 75 million people would help to create an Anglo-Turkish voting bloc that would challenge the traditional Franco-German control of the EU.

How times have changed.

Regardless of how Britain votes on June 23, the UK will have to work with Turkey. The Brexit campaign should not cut off its nose to spite its face.

Luke Coffey is a research fellow specialising in transatlantic and Eurasian security at a Washington DC-based think-tank. He previously served as a special adviser to the British defence secretary and was a commissioned officer in the United States Army.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.


More from Author
Most Read