Monday, 23 May 2016

What planet are the Brexiters on?

No, Turkey is not about to join the EU. And the only country that wants it to is the UK.

Yesterday, on one of the UK's main Sunday morning politics shows, the UK's defence minister Penny Mordaunt made an astonishing claim. 

The pro-Brexit Tory politician told the BBC's Andrew Marr that Turkey is about to join the European Union, which would open the flood gates to Turkish immigrants coming into the UK. Asked if the UK has veto power over Turkish accession, Mordaunt replied, "No, it doesn't".

Except that it does - quite obviously. Any new EU member state must be approved unanimously by every county in the union, something that UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who is trying to stop the UK from voting to leave the EU, was quick to point out later in the day. 

So, was Mordaunt lying? Or is she just wildly uninformed? It is astonishing that a senior minister - one who is in charge of the army no less - could get such a basic fact wrong. If she was not knowingly lying, then it suggests she has not even the most basic understanding of how the EU works. What makes it all the more incredible is that Spain's threatened veto of Scottish accession to the EU was a central debate during the Scottish independence referendum in 2014. Was Mordaunt not paying attention? 

Perhaps the most galling thing about her bizarre assertion is that, veto power or no, there is virtually zero prospect of Turkey ever joining the EU. France and Germany are both vehemently opposed, as are almost all other EU member states. In fact the only EU member state that has been pushing for Turkey to join the EU is - wait for it - the UK.

I've written before about the reasons why this is. Much of the British media portrays it as an issue of race or religion, but it is really about politics. If Turkey joined the EU today it would be the second-largest EU member state after Germany. With current demographic trends, it will be larger than Germany by 2020, which is the absolute earliest it could ever hope to join. 

In this case, size does matter. It would mean that Turkey would be the most powerful state in the union, having the highest representation in the European Parliament and the most weighted votes in the European Council. This for a country with a dubious human rights record, a tenuous attachment to Democracy, and a highly debatable claim of being in Europe geographically.

It would be the equivalent of asking the United States to take on Mexico as the 51st state. Continental Europeans understand this. The British do not. Why? Because most of them would dispute the analogy I just made. 

If you believe that the EU should only be a free trade zone, then there would be no issue with taking in Turkey as a member of the club. After all, the US is in a free trade zone with Mexico. But this vision of the EU is at odds with that of France and Germany, who see it as a political union.

So for the Brexiters to now claim that the EU is going to force the UK to be in a union with Turkey is just bizarre. 

These are the same people who have been advocating for Turkish accession for years, because they want the EU to be a free trade zone rather than a political union. Yet now in the Brexit debate they turn around and claim that it is the continental Europeans who are about to force Turkish accession upon them, and they are powerless to stop it. They are wrong on both counts. 

This is just one example of the many bizarre and illogical arguments being made by the Leave camp, a state of affairs that was even recognised by the rabidly conservative Mail on Sunday this weekend.

However this referendum turns out, the debate has exposed the almost unbelievable ignorance of some people in the UK's most senior positions of power, whether it be the former mayor of London, the minister for education, or the minister for defence. 

"No, it isn't" should be three words that haunt Polly Mordaunt for the rest of her life. But in the fact-free world of the UK's Brexit debate (just look at the BBC's description of the exchange on YouTube), I suspect she will shrug this all off. And that should be very worrying for anyone in the UK who believes that their senior officials should demonstrate a minimum degree of competence.

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