Vote Leave made the prospect of the imminent EU accession by Turkey a central argument of its campaign for the UK to leave.
On 21 May, Defence Minister and Brexit campaigner Penny Mordaunt said:
“A remain vote in this referendum is a vote to allow people from Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey to move here freely when they join the EU soon.
“Many of these countries have high crime rates, problems with gangs and terror cells as well as challenging levels of poverty. What’s more, we are currently sending these countries £2 billion to speed up the process of them joining the EU.
“I believe that this is dangerous and it will make us less safe. That’s why the safer option in this referendum is to Vote Leave and take back control.”
Of the five countries cited, Turkey was the main focus of debate. Its population is six times greater than that of the other four countries put together. If it joined it would become the second most populous country in the EU after Germany. It would also be the EU’s first Muslim state.
Michael Gove complained in the Daily Mail: “The EU is planning not just to give visa-free travel to 77 million Turks, but also to absorb this Muslim state into the EU.
“How can it possibly be sensible to allow Turkey, in its current straits, and with Islamic State on its border, to become a full member of the EU?”
Vote Leave also focused on fears of criminality, saying: “Since the birth rate in Turkey is so high, we can expect to see an additional million people added to the UK population from Turkey alone within eight years.
“This will not only increase the strain on Britain’s public services, but it will also create a number of threats to UK security. Crime is far higher in Turkey than the UK. Gun ownership is also more widespread. Because of the EU’s free movement laws, the government will not be able to exclude Turkish criminals from entering the UK.”
Vote Leave cited a Financial Times story, which reported that negotiations on Turkey’s accession were about to open a new chapter, as proof that the country was set to join the EU “in the near future”.
In fact, negotiations on Turkey’s accession opened in 2005. The country needs to meet various conditions in order to become a member. These feature in 35 “chapters”, covering areas such as free movement, environment and competition policy and justice.
Of these 35, negotiations have been opened on just 15, and only one has concluded – in June 2006. As many commentators have noted, at this rate it will be several decades before Turkey completes its accession negotiations.
One reason progress has been so slow is that Turkey has failed to meet the political and economic conditions of entry to the EU.
The threshold for meeting the accession criteria is higher than it has ever been and the EU is imposing strict conditions on Turkey.
It decided in 2006, for example, to bar negotiations on eight chapters until Turkey opened its ports and airports to traffic and trade from Cyprus. It has not done so, meaning talks haven’t even begun in those areas.
France declared in 2007 that it was vetoing the opening of five negotiating chapters, only one of which was among the eight already being blocked. The block on three of these remains in place. Cyprus followed in 2009 with an announcement that it was unilaterally blocking the opening of a further six negotiating chapters.
Furthermore, just as negotiations cannot be progressed against the will of France or Cyprus, so the UK, like all other member states, has a veto over Turkey’s accession – because Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty requires a unanimous vote to allow accession of a candidate state. Turkey will not be joining the EU without the agreement of the UK.
Penny Mordaunt flatly denied this on 24 May in an interview with Andrew Marr. When Marr said, “the British government does have a veto”, Mordaunt replied: “No it doesn’t.”
The former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt later called this assertion “contemptible”.
One of the keenest advocates of Turkey’s accession has been Boris Johnson, who has Turkish heritage. When he was editor of the Spectator he published a passionate leader headed Let Turkey In, and he made a similar case in a BBC documentary in 2006.
Despite that advocacy, however, he was under no illusions that Turkey’s membership was imminent, as he made clear to LBC listeners on 15 March.
Noting that Turkey had been a candidate to join since 1963, he said he thought Turks were going off the idea of joining and that accession “is not going to happen in the foreseeable future”. He added: “If it were to happen, what you would not get is anything to do with free movement… The idea of suddenly 75 million Turks, and all those coming into Turkey, notionally having the right to visa-free travel to the EU – that is simply not on the cards.”
For whatever reason, he failed to convey this conviction to his colleagues in the Vote Leave campaign.