Talking Turkey: Britain’s Toxic EU Referendum

Britain’s referendum campaign on whether to leave the European Union has become decidedly bitter. Indeed, the atmosphere is frequently considered ‘poisonous’, as those who advocate for Britain to remain within the EU are called ‘traitors’ by their opponents, and as many who support the Leave campaign are stereotyped as ignorant, malevolent or both. 

But these are, by and large, domestic questions. Something that has been less-often examined is the impact of this campaign on British perceptions of other countries – both within and outside the European Union itself.

One country that has been the focal point of much of the campaign is Turkey, which is not – and which will likely never be – a member of the European Union.

Regardless of that fact, however, the Turkish question is a pertinent one; and in many ways it can be seen to typify the toxic atmosphere that this referendum has created, and in which the future of British foreign policy may be decided.

There is a long history of particularly anti-Turkish racism in Britain. There is a precedent which dates back to the 19th century to condemn ‘Turkish atrocities’ in places such as Bulgaria and Greece, which were then part of the Ottoman Empire; William Ewart Gladstone, the great Liberal Prime Minister of that time, remonstrated publically against ‘Bulgarian Horrors’ perpetrated by dastardly Turks.

The oppressive nature of this empire was frequently reduced to the image of an ethnic Turk oppressing ethnic Europeans – particularly Christians. A similar trend can, I think, be found in some of what Britain’s Leave campaign is saying – and, perhaps more importantly, implying – about Turkey’s proposed membership of the EU and its proximity to Iraq and Syria.

Leave posters feature phrases such as ‘Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU’, along with a rather suggestive trail of footprints passing through an open doorway resembling a British European Union passport.

Another provocatively illuminates Turkey in bright red, while drawing attention to its proximity to Iraq and Syria, which are similarly highlighted. The implication being in both cases that Turks, and likely their neighbours from war-torn states, are all too likely to turn up on Britain’s doorsteps in their millions – if and when Turkey joins the EU, of course.

This stuff is hardly subtle, but it does seem to be effective.

Immigration, polling organisations suggest, is now the issue Britons most care about, and that which is most likely to affect the way they vote on Thursday. Leave.EU – though not the official Leave campaign – has carved out a niche in the debate by sharing cartoons and images playing on this fear.

One such cartoon centred on a fairly laboured pun of the European Union ‘ship of state’ falling into difficulties; one of its many problems, in this representation, includes the bloc being overrun by Arab–Turkish figures, complete with scimitars and bad intentions.

This is less dog-whistle politics than out and out racism; and while it is not representative of the official Leave campaign, it would be foolish to suggest that such sentiments play no part in the frequent invocations of Turkey which have come to categorise the public debate on this subject.

Turkey is currently enduring a tremendous and unwarranted barrage of criticism the world over.

The Russian government and Russian state media have each played a significant part in this situation, not least because of tensions between the two countries over Syria and the fate of the Assad regime, which Russia supports and the Turkish government opposes.

To a surprisingly great extent, a lot of this campaign of national defamation is based on conspiracy theories, which have in turn found willing advocates in the West, including in Britain.

Some of the most common mouthpieces for the aforementioned conspiracy theories are Russian state broadcasters. RT (formerly Russia Today) and Sputnik News have recently propagated stories purporting to expose ‘Turkey’s alleged ISIS support’, arguing that ‘Turkey Provides Military Equipment to ISIS’, and attempting to explain how ‘Daesh [is] Receiving Assistance From Turkey “With Ankara’s Tacit Approval”’.

In addition, Turkish troops are declared to have stood idle while IS made gains on the other side of the Syrian border, and to have shot down Russian planes which were not in Turkish airspace. The conflicting nature of these stories – one promoting cross-border military action and the other denouncing it – is not something the average reader is expected to notice.

All of this feeds into a media landscape where the Turkish state has been so discredited that any association with the Turkish people themselves can prove highly negative. That Turkish borders are portrayed as remarkably porous – allowing IS fighters to go to and from Syria and Iraq with ease, in some tellings – is more than enough to stoke fear about what exactly should happen if Turkey were to join the European Union and its open-border area.

The fact that this is decidedly unlikely has no bearing on this fear, which can be exploited or employed for political purposes.

This particular political campaign does not separate the actions of the Turkish government (which, especially in its incarnation under President Erdogan, are hardly positive) from its people, who are often referred to as a kind of amorphous mass, an invading horde-in-waiting rather than a nation.

The demonisation of Turkey and Turks is something that has a long history in Britain. That tradition has found new employment in the increasingly unpleasant referendum campaign. Things are no longer civil; they are no longer decent and understated.

The possibility of Turkish membership of the EU is portrayed as yet another nail in the coffin of the union; and though this is hardly imminent (and even rather improbable), it has effectively become the focal point of this thoroughly bitter campaign.

Whether the tone will change before Britons go to the polls seems increasingly unlikely; and whatever the result may be, the forces of isolationism, not to mention genuine racism, may play an increasingly public and no doubt corrosive role in British politics for years to come.

This piece was originally published in The New Arab.