This week's speech by UK prime minister David Cameron in Ankara was notably aggressive – not toward his Turkish hosts, but toward Britain’s EU allies. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise from a leader who promised to be combative with the EU when sticking up for Britain’s interests. But Cameron’s strong (and unrealistic) guarantees to Turkey and his condemnation of Germany and France will set UK foreign relations on a tricky tightrope walk. What exactly is Mr. Cameron playing at here?
In his speech, Cameron was unusually outspoken about his support for Turkey’s membership in the EU. Of course this is long-held British policy, and the previous Labour government was also supportive of the membership. But Cameron went above and beyond this by ratcheting up the rhetoric. Saying he wanted to “pave the road from Ankara to Brussels,” Cameron stated that “the EU would be poor without Turkey.” Pointing to Turkey’s membership in NATO, Cameron said “It’s just wrong to say Turkey can guard the camp but not be allowed to sit inside the tent.”
By contrast German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, who was in Ankara with Mr. Cameron, was much more cautious. Westerwelle, the leader of Germany’s Liberal party, also supports Turkey’s membership in the EU. But his party is in a governing coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, who strongly oppose such an accession. He’s already been in trouble with Merkel for being too effusive in his public support for Turkish membership in the union, and this time around it was clear he had learned his lesson. Though he encouraged Turkey to carry on in its efforts to join, he gave a frank assertion that Turkey is “not ready” to join the EU. Even more importantly, he pointed out that the EU is not ready to absorb Turkey.
But guess which speech the Turkish media splashed across the front pages? The Turkish press was positively effervescent over Cameron’s lavish praise for Turkey, and his face was all over Turkish TV screens this week. A quick and easy diplomatic coup for the UK no doubt, which is keen to establish strong ties with Turkey’s new Islamist-leaning government.
measures for NATO-EU cooperation - indicating that it does not, as Cameron suggests, recognise or want any NATO-EU connection.
This isn’t the only way in which Cameron’s speech was disingenuous. When he makes assertions casting EU membership for Turkey as the most obvious and natural thing in the world, he is not only damaging the credibility of his allies who have legitimate reasons for blocking Turkey’s membership, but he is also ignoring the obvious hurdles to such an accession – some of which he himself has set up.
As part of their election manifesto the Conservatives promised the British public a referendum on any future EU treaty change – which would surely include taking on a new member state. Considering the political debacle that resulted from the UK’s decision to allow full access to UK jobs for the new Eastern European members states in 2004 (while Germany and France opted to block full access at first) the British public are unlikely to look too favourably on an accession agreement that would open the doors to 77 million Muslim immigrants. Even if the Conservatives were to put in transitional working rights agreements this time around, it’s unlikely the British public would be comfortable with full Turkish access to British jobs, even if it was delayed 10 years in the future. But free movement and access to all EU jobs is a cornerstone of EU membership. Eventually, every EU citizen needs to have the right to work in any other EU country, and Turks would have to be given this just like any other EU citizen.
These fears of a migrant tidal wave by the public are not unfounded, and reflect a larger concern over demographics. Though the British media often portray these concerns as "racist", the fact is that the math just doesn’t add up for Turkish membership. Right now the population of Turkey is about 77 million, 15 million more than the UK or France. If it joined the EU today it would be the second largest member state, just after Germany with 82 million. But the reality is that Turkey couldn’t join today, the earliest it could possibly hope to join is in 10 years. Given demographic trends (Turkey has the highest population growth rate in Europe while Germany has among the lowest), Turkey would be guaranteed to be the largest member state in the EU by the time it joined, probably by a margin of at least 5 million.
Never mind the logistics of how the EU would absorb such an enormous wave of migrants from a comparatively poor country – which is probably the question most on the public’s mind. What would be the implications of Turkey being the largest state in the EU? Right now that honour goes to Germany, which is often called the “heart of the EU”. Germany has the highest number of MEPs in the European Parliament, by far, and it’s often observed that Germans are the most powerful force in that institution (through a combination of their size and their proactive engagement). Because of its size Germany also gets the largest vote in the European Council through weighted voting. In other words, Germany is the most powerful state in the EU. Part of that is because it’s very active in Brussels and has the largest and most successful economy. But the most important factor is that it is the largest member state.
France’s objection to British membership back in the 1970’s, he wasn’t entirely off base. Britain’s EU entry fundamentally changed the nature and the direction of the European Union. There are many in Brussels today who think it was a fundamental mistake to let the UK join. Britain has been the EU’s most stubborn and uncooperative member, and it has resisted the federalist mission that was the stated objective of early EU leaders right from the start. There’s little doubt that the EU would be more integrated today if the UK had never joined. Certainly, the UK brought other benefits and contributions to the EU that were invaluable, and the UK is responsible for much of the common market’s success. But for Cameron to ignore the fact that there are many in continental Europe who feel that admitting the UK has done fundamental damage to the objectives of a united Europe, and to present it as if it’s a foregone conclusion that that decision was a good thing, seems rather tone deaf.
The basic fact Mr. Cameron is ignoring is that the change in direction for the EU that would result from Turkish accession would dwarf that which occurred in the 1970’s after Britain joined. As many in Brussels have observed, the EU could only be little more than a free trade zone if Turkey were admitted, because it would be unworkable as a political union. Of course for the Conservatives, having the EU devolve into just a free trade zone like NAFTA would be a dream come true. But if that’s the reason they want Turkey to join, they need to just come out and say it. Right now these sort of speeches seem not only unrealistic, but downright duplicitous.