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Tuesday, March 08, 2016 

Turkey and the EU ought to be a dream for Leave. It won't be.

If the various Leave campaigns had any sense, which is a contradiction in terms in itself, but bear with me for a moment here, then they would drop the whining about scaremongering and turn their own fearmongering up to maximum volume.  Never mind these laughable attempts to suggest they care about fishing quotas and the like and in turn get us to care about them, they ought to target their fire on the EU's true weak spot: the organisation's commitment to expansion.  Bulgaria and Romania were never in a million years ready to join the EU, and yet in they came.  Similarly, while the picture is more complicated with what were the accession A8 eastern European states, some still fail to come up to scratch on freedom of speech and freedom of the press, not to forget having complicated histories they would rather didn't get much attention.

Turkey is without doubt though in an league of its own.  Countries across Europe openly discriminate against the Roma to varying degrees, but none are in a state of open warfare as Turkey once again is against the Kurds.  Sure, the war is technically against the PKK, the Kurdistan Workers' Party, regarded as a terrorist organisation by the EU, and yet everyone is aware of the reality.  Since President Erdogan's AKP won the second of last year's two elections, the repression of all opposition to the government has increased dramatically.  Today brings news that Turkey's second largest news agency, Cihan, has been seized in an identical fashion to how Zaman, the country's biggest newspaper was taken over last week.  Both are linked to the Gulen movement, once allied to Erdogan, but since turned on after a breakdown in relations between the men is alleged to have sparked a 2013 investigation into corruption that implicated Erdogan and his sons, among other AKP figures.

In usual times, it wouldn't be the best of ideas to be crushing media dissent and teargassing protesters at the same time as asking for talks on joining the EU to be restarted.  These are not usual times.  Last week saw Nato's Supreme Allied Commander Europe claim to the Senate that Russia and Syria were "weaponising" the refugee crisis in a bid to "overwhelm European structures and break European resolve".  If there wasn't a Nato member from which the vast majority of migrants were making their attempts to get to Europe proper, rather than say Syria itself, this would just be the familiar spectacle of the Americans tending to send their most insane/most anti-Russian generals over to Europe.  As Turkey is a Nato member, a Nato member that Simon Tisdall in the Graun writes has arguably made the refugee crisis worse through its policies in Syria, it makes fairly apparent that in the end the Americans will always choose Turkey.

As for the "arguably" part, read definitely.  Turkey has been the main conduit for weapons for the non-Islamic State opposition to Assad, a conduit operated in part by the CIA.  As for IS itself, until very recently Turkey all but waved through anyone who wanted to pledge themselves to the caliphate, while more "arguable" is just how close the relationship between Turkey and Islamic State was, whether it extended to mere trading of oil, something that all actors involved in the conflict were caught up in, or whether it extended to perhaps even the sharing of intelligence.  Either way, Turkey has more than a case to answer for prolonging the war in Syria and contributing to the refugee crisis, including in its attitude towards the Kurds.

Erdogan essentially concluded that hosting millions of Syrian refugees was acceptable in the short-term if it meant not losing face when it came to his policy of seeing President Assad overthrown.  Besides, it's turned out to be something of a happy accident for him.  Refugees, unable to work legally, tiring of living in camps and despairing of the war ending any time soon last year started to turn in larger numbers towards the people smugglers, encouraged further by the humanitarian if disastrous in hindsight gesture of Chancellor Merkel.  In spite of the winter and an agreement last year between Turkey and the EU that was meant to see a crackdown on the traffickers, up to 2,000 migrants a day are now landing on Greek shores.  Just how well in practice a country with a coastline as long as Turkey's can stop those determined to get Europe and those determined to provide them with that service is open to question, but with Schengen in danger of collapse and fences going up on borders in the Balkans, EU leaders want a deal at almost any cost.

If that means providing succour to a president who has modelled himself on Putin, a leader with the audacity to close down newspapers and bomb his own citizens at the same time as those talks are going on, then apparently Merkel, Hollande and others have decided so be it.  The proposed deal whereby the refugee boats will be taken back to Turkey, with Syrians from the camps resettled in the EU in an "one in, one out" scheme has as many holes in it as the average vessel the traffickers put their customers to sea in.  That's before you even get started on the legality, let alone morality of sending refugees from countries other than Syria that are just as dangerous back to where they fled from.  The chances then of even a "preparation of a decision on the opening of new chapters in talks on EU membership for Turkey" taking place are fairly remote.

And yet even this merest suggestion that Turkey could join the EU ought to be seized on by the Leave side.  Yes, there's the obvious scare line about the potential for 75 million more people potentially having the right to come and work in the UK, and their overwhelmingly being Muslims to boot for the hard right to make much of, as Paul Mason identifies.  Also though there's the potential for dwelling on how this often seemingly anti-democratic union has very few qualms about doing the most dodgy of deals with outright autocrats, so long as it solves a problem in the short-term.  There's both a positive and negative case to be made for why Turkey should be refused entry, and to how it makes clear the direction in which the EU appears to keep on heading.  Expect though that Leave will just carrying on with their bitching and moaning about how unfair their opponents are being, as that seems the only thing they know how to do.

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