Turkey as Terror: the Role of Ankara in the Brexit Referendum

“Either we influence Europe, or it influences us.”

— David Cameron, The Telegraph, May 8, 2016

Hungary’s Viktor Orbán got there first, beating the drums of fear at the prospect of reincarnated Ottoman hordes streaming through Europe in an Islamic remake of a modern continent. With the British referendum on the EU fast approaching, the demonic Turk is again taking the centre stage in terms of terrifying metaphor.

This is not to say that Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey is a model state. Far from democratic, it maintains a brutal hold over the press, persists in attempting to neutralise Kurdish fighters even as it courts, in qualified fashion, various fundamentalist groups across the Middle East. Another side of his strategy, as put forth by some commentators, is an effort to embrace an “integrate but don’t assimilate” doctrine regarding Islamism in Europe.[1]

Former London Major Boris Johnson, liberated from his duties as mayor and focusing entirely on the strategy for a British exit from the EU, has even gone so far as to fashion a limerick on the Turkish leader for the Offensive Erdoğan Poetry competition:

There was a young fellow from Ankara

Who was a terrific wankerer

Till he sowed his wild oats

With the help of a goat

But he didn’t even stop to thankera.

This is to ignore what Johnson has previous said about Turkey, thinking that avoiding the state was historically stubborn, a denial of reality. Eventually, Ankara would have to be formally admitted to the European family of nations.

Not so now. Having told the Sunday Times about how “pro-Turkish” he was, he also asserted that every Turk worth his or her salt was bound to want to come to Britain, a situation he could not accept. He could not “imagine” the case “in which 77 million of my fellow Turks and those of Turkish origin can come here without any checks at all. That is really mad.” This is classic romanticism gone mad. We like you just the way you are, distant on the other side of the European land mass. We can visit you with minimal fuss, while you, well, need barriers and qualifications.

Numerous examples feature in current British-EU political debate about the Turk, with such comments from Melanie McDonagh of The Spectator claiming that Johnson was “making the obvious case for Brexit, namely that the Turks are at the door.”[2] According to Tory MP James Duddridge, the UK was equipping its own assassin by throwing money eastwards. “We are currently sending over 1 billion pounds to Turkey to help them join the EU – the only way to stop this affecting the UK is to Vote Leave on 23 June.”

The Express struck an Orbánesque note about imminent flood and doom: “More than 12 million Turkish citizens are planning to move to Britain when the country joins the European Union, an exclusive poll for Express.co.uk has revealed.”[3] Naturally, the paper was keen to highlight the sample as concerning the “unemployed or students, raising the prospect of a migrant influx which would place an unprecedented strain on the UK’s struggling public services, including the NHS.”

Turkey, and the shaped threat of its future inclusion, is becoming the great political football of the Brexit debate. There are those, such as former Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, who see an inflation of criminal populations on streets and in British prisons and a reduction of wages if Ankara gets its way. For that reason, “the prospect of Turkey joining the EU is one of the strongest arguments for the UK to leave.”

Cameron is obviously desperate against the Vote Leave campaigners, having to face such fatuous assertions as those of Armed Forces minister Penny Mordaunt who claim that Britain has no veto over the addition of member states to the EU bloc. Leave Europe and turn your back on it will, he chides, leave Britain vulnerable; leave Europe and, effectively, contemplate the prospect of a warring continent and having to face future problems.

To that end, he sees such battles as Trafalgar, Blenheim and Waterloo as evidence that Britain can never pretend to be isolated from the grand, and occasionally vicious issues, of the continent. “Whenever we turn our back on Europe, sooner or later we come to regret it. We have always had to go back in, and always at much higher cost.”

This is Britain as history’s moral cleaner, going through and sanitising the messes of other people. As for Turkey, such moral cleaning has taken a distant, cold back seat. Conservative supporters have ambushed him on that score, reminding him of his 2010 position, in which he stated that he was “here to make the case for Turkey’s membership of the EU.”

Downing Street’s former spin doctor-in-chief Alastair Campbell smells a pongy whiff of racism in the targeting of Turkey. “There has been in recent days a hint of, at best, borderline racism in the way Leave have sought to use this issue. The bad news is its unpleasantness and irresponsibility.”[4]

So, as the debaters get ready to mangle more facts, distort more truths, and conjure up more fantasies of doom, the referendum debate looks ever more confused. The Turks can simply say they were the latest addition to the muck, while Turkish leaders may well recoil in horror at what images of them are circulating.


[1] http://www.nationalreview.com/article/435673/boris-johnson-erdogan-limerick-turkish-president-mocked-verse

[2] http://blogs.spectator.co.uk/2016/04/has-boris-finally-realised-why-turkey-shouldnt-join-the-eu/

[3] http://www.express.co.uk/news/uk/672563/Turkey-EU-Britain-exclusive-poll-crime-figures-Turks

[4] http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/eu-referendum-alastair-campbell-accuses-vote-leave-borderline-racism-over-turkey-warning-1561571

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Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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