Brexit Thoughts from Turkey
Last week took me to Istanbul, working on a Newton Mobility Grant project with two of our former PhD students, Umut and Burcu Senalp. During the time that I was away, the Brexit crisis in Parliament really got going, which triggered a number of thoughts.
First of all, the role of Turkey in the Brexit referendum… Remember ‘Turkey is joining the EU’?
Even at the time, this was stretching a tiny bit of truth a very long way: although Turkey was at the time still formally a candidate for membership, it was widely acknowledged by 2016 that the country was a vast distance off qualifying, and the only issue was really who was going to tell the Turkish voters and businesses that membership was never going to happen.
In the end, Mr Erdoğan obliged by withdrawing Turkey’s candidacy, but rather too late to scupper the Vote Leave posters.
Secondly, Turkey played a crucial role in another sense: the huge number of Syrians who have become refugees in their larger neighbour. These refugees number about 4 million and are not just the half million Syrian Turkmen, who have ethnic ties to Turkey, but also Arabs, whose language is quite different.
The number of Syrians who were daring to cross into Greece – and Angela Merkel’s remarkable offer to take a million – sparked the EU migrant crisis and the surge in populist votes in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as Nigel Farage’s controversial ‘Breaking Point’ poster.
Thirdly, one might well view Mr Erdoğan’s government as a prototype of the type of authoritarian populism sweeping parts of the Western World – especially after the attempted coup of two years ago. Yet Turkey has so far been remarkably welcoming to the Syrians. I guess we must hope this continues.
Fourthly, hearing all the debates about the non-migration aspects of UK-EU relations sparked a thought. The European Research Group (ERG) around Jacob Rees-Mogg seems keen to term continued Customs Union membership as ‘vassal state’ status, and indeed this diagnosis seems to have spread to Boris Johnson’s Remain-voting brother, Jo, who spoke of a choice between “vassalage and chaos”.
However, Turkey has prospered in a customs union with the EU – an arrangement that allows the lorries to flow and Turkish household goods to fill our kitchens, yet without an open border to migration. It seems there is very little talk of ‘strongman’ Erdoğan’s Turkey being a ‘vassal state’ (a Google search of ‘Turkey vassal state’ brings up the history of the Ottoman Empire, not references to the EU).
Does this suggest that the ERG are rather overplaying this issue?
Indeed, the fact that the UK is still in a customs union with Turkey was something I much appreciated on flying back into the UK laden with presents from Istanbul’s wonderful bazaars – no duty is paid on goods transported within a customs union!
Dr Huw Edwards is Senior Lecturer in Economics and leader of the TRANSIT research interest group at the School of Business and Economics, Loughborough University. Huw can be reached on T.H.Edwards@lboro.ac.uk