Brexit vote complicates Turkey’s EU membership bid

Sunday 03/07/2016
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan delivers a speech in Istanbul, on June 24th.

Istanbul - With Britain’s Brexit vote, Turkey lost its main supporter in the European Un­ion, throwing into question both its efforts to join the 28-country bloc and a much-criti­cised migration deal struck in 2015 that aimed at keeping refugees in Turkey and out of Europe.
“Turkey has lost its most impor­tant backer with Britain,” said Cen­giz Aktar, an expert on EU relations. “There will be direct consequences for all negotiating countries and the EU might just realise that the [refu­gee deal] is wrong and in the long term ineffective. The big question is if Brussels will open the next ne­gotiating chapter as planned.”
Turkish and EU officials are ex­pected to have an intergovern­mental conference on the opening of Chapter 33 on budgetary provi­sions.
Aktar said that in Ankara the Brit­ish vote was seen as another blow to Turkey’s EU membership hopes and that it reinforced sentiments in the Turkish government that rac­ism and Islamophobia were the real reasons that Turkey has been kept waiting at the door.
“The EU can no longer hide the double standard it employs when it comes to Turkey,” Turkish Presi­dent Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on June 25th. “What is being done to Turkey right now is Islamophobic and that is the reason they delay our accession.”
On the eve of the British vote, Er­dogan sullenly suggested that Tur­key could have its own referendum — a Trexit — over whether to go on with its long-stalled and rocky ac­cession process to join the bloc.
Turkey began EU accession talks in 2005 but, despite an initial flurry of democratic, economic and hu­man rights reforms, the process has been sluggish or stalled altogether, leading to growing frustration in Ankara. Many EU members show little enthusiasm to admit such a large country with a majority Mus­lim population to the union that Turkish politicians have scathingly called a “Christian club”.
Relations also suffered over the rapidly deteriorating human rights situation in Turkey, with crack­downs on freedom of expression, an independent judiciary and the country’s Kurds all ringing alarms in Brussels. Turkey and the European Union clashed over Ankara’s refusal to revise the country’s controversial anti-terrorism legislation to bring it in line with European standards.
Turkey’s EU membership had long been advocated by Britain and several British politicians cham­pioned the country’s membership over the years. In 2010, shortly af­ter he became prime minister, Da­vid Cameron promised to be the “strongest possible advocate for [Turkey’s] EU membership”.
It was for that reason also that the bruising Brexit campaign that zoomed in on Turkey as a potential source of higher insecurity, terror­ism, criminality and uncontrollable migration to Britain, was received with anger and disappointment in Ankara.
“This has been an unsettling and worrying process… during which mainstream politicians relied on the far right’s rhetoric too much,” Turkey’s EU Minister Omer Celik told a June 25th news conference.
Even the Remain camp used Tur­key as a reverse bogeyman, with Cameron jokingly saying that Turk­ish EU membership was impossi­ble before the year 3000. Erdogan, lamenting the British prime minis­ter’s dishonesty, gleefully retorted that Cameron, who said he would resign after losing the Brexit vote, had not lasted three days into his threat.
“Both camps have used and abused Turkey-bashing as a means to rally votes during the Brexit cam­paign,” Aktar said. “Even if the re­sult of the referendum would have been a win of the Remain side, Tur­key’s membership bid would have changed dramatically following such rhetoric.”
However, Turkey is eager to not let this sour its trade relations with Britain, its second-biggest market in 2015, with $10.5 billion worth of exports and total trade volume of $16 billion.
After the British vote, Turkish Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci said his country would continue to strengthen and maintain invest­ment and foreign trade with Brit­ain.
Turkish Prime Minister Binali Yildirim said the European Union needed to carefully reconsider its political vision and not “alien­ate itself” from other countries in the region. He warned that the Brexit vote revealed dissatisfaction among EU members and that more inclusive policies were needed in the future.
“We support the continuation of a stronger [European Union]. This is an important issue for peace in Europe and stability in the region,” he said.