It’s not going to happen. That’s what everyone says who knows anything about the subject that we’re going to be hearing quite a bit about this week: Turkey’s membership of the EU. I’ve heard it from someone who works for William Hague, from a political editor, from a diplomat. Which makes this week’s state visit by the Turkish president, Abdullah Gul, on his three-day state visit to Britain seem pretty well beside the point.
The British government is right behind Turkey’s bid for EU membership, no country more so. David Cameron and William Hague have if anything been even more effusive in their support than Tony Blair and Jack Straw before them — the duo who managed to ensure that Turkey became officially a candidate nation for EU membership. But get the back office boys talking and this is what they’ll tell you: France will veto it. The French have mooted the idea of a referendum on Turkey joining, which is tantamount to saying they’ll say no, by a huge margin — and Germany won’t wear it. At least not while Angela Merkel’s alive. (During a visit to Croatia recently, she hinted strongly that after its accession, that would be the end of EU expansion for the time being.) So why is the British government so much in favour? And why shouldn’t it be?
To answer the first one first, favouring Turkey’s membership of the EU has an awful lot to recommend it for a government which has engaged in conflict in Islamic countries. It’s a cheap way of showing you’re pro-Islamic or, rather, pro-moderate Islam, even if you backed the US in Afghanistan. The gist of that argument, as expressed by the Prime Minister repeatedly, is that Turkey is a moderate Islamic country and we want to encourage moderate Islam as opposed to the other sort. So, you get brownie points for being positive about Muslims in Europe, which obviously plays well with your own constituency here. And that argument holds despite disturbing evidence that Turkey’s moderation in terms of Islam isn’t by any means a given, including under Mr Gul’s Islamist AKP, Justice and Development party. A poll conducted this summer by Istanbul’s Bahçe?ehir university suggested that 48 per cent of Turks wouldn’t want a Christian as a neighbour; more than half wouldn’t want Jews.
Added to which, there is no doubt that Turkey is strategically important; it’s a player in the Syrian conflict and has exercised real influence there recently. Its economy is growing, though before we get too excited about the growth rate of 6.6 per cent, we would do well to remember that Ireland’s was seven per cent during the boom years — which were followed by the crash.
But the argument against Turkish membership isn’t that it’s Islamic, it’s that it’s not European. Three per cent of its land mass is on the European side of the Bosphorus, which means that 97 per cent of it is geographically in Asia. That’s an awful lot of Asia getting into Europe on the back of Turkey’s European tail. And unless you’re someone like Denis MacShane, the former Europe minister, who thinks geography is neither here nor there when it comes to EU membership, that’s the decisive consideration. If you’re keen on including countries with large or majority Muslim populations in the EU, by the way, there are some bona fide states which are squarely in Europe and have a large percentage of Muslims, chiefly Albania, Kosovo and Bosnia. Get them into Europe if you like. I did raise this issue when a Turkish government delegation was at Chatham House; one woman responded that these things were fluid and Turkey could qualify by dint of its former imperial reach. By that logic, Britain should be a member of the Arab League.
The other argument, to my mind decisive, is Turkey’s size. Just now its population is 76 million, and it could reach 97 million, according to the UN, by 2050. Just let those numbers sink in. EU membership means the citizens of member states have the right to work and live anywhere within the EU. In other words, 76 million people could gravitate anywhere they liked within the EU, including Britain, within seven years of joining. There is a Turkish community of about half a million people here, including Turkish Cypriots; naturally people gravitate towards countries where they can live with others from the same culture. The effect on Germany would be catastrophic, obviously, which doesn’t seem to worry the Brits a jot, but the influx of an unknown number of Turks here would have a profoundly destabilising effect. There’s already a petition before parliament, which got 120,000 signatures, arguing that the population shouldn’t be allowed to reach 70 million as a consequence of immigration: well you can kiss goodbye to that aspiration if you include in the EU a country potentially larger than Germany.
Of course Turkey’s a strategically and economically important country. It just doesn’t belong in the EU, which doesn’t preclude giving it something like a first-cousin status within the European Economic Area in terms of trade. But the arguments against aren’t enough to dent the extraordinary coalition behind its accession: everyone from the Telegraph to the Tablet, from Boris Johnson to Harriet Harman. What they’ve all got in common as I say, is a commitment to looking good in terms of outreach to Islam — with the honourable exception of Mr Johnson who may be influenced by his Turkish forebears.
But so far as the government is concerned, they’ve got their fingers crossed behind their backs even while they’re talking loudest about really wanting Turkey in, not out. They know it’s safe to talk, because so long as there’s a chance the issue will be put to the French people, it hasn’t a prayer. Which makes, I’d say, their position that much worse: not just wrong but hypocritical.