The Prime Minister, David Cameron, has dismissed suggestions that Turkey could join the European Union anytime soon, telling MPs that Turkish accession is not “remotely on the cards,” despite telling the Turks in 2010 that he was their “strongest possible advocate.” UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage slammed his claim as “ludicrous.”
Mr Cameron’s assurances are designed to play down claims by Brexit campaigners that remaining within the EU would leave the door open to 77 million Turks being handed freedom of movement rights, allowing them to come and live and work in the UK at will.
But they directly contradict a statement put out by the European Commission yesterday which confirmed that, in return for co-operation on the migrant crisis, “the accession process [for Turkey] will be re-energised, with Chapter 33 to be opened during the Dutch Presidency of the Council of the European Union and preparatory work on the opening of other chapters to continue at an accelerated pace.”
Last week justice secretary and Brexit campaigner Michael Gove, commenting on the deal, asked: “For their part, the Turks have demanded €6 billion from the European Union to stop the flow of migrants heading west. 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?”
It was precisely concerns such as these that Mr Cameron waived away yesterday. Appearing before the Liaison Committee yesterday to answer questions on the EU referendum and Britain’s membership of the EU, Mr Cameron told MPs:
“I’ll be absolutely frank with you: I don’t think the accession of Turkey to the European Union is remotely on the cards; I don’t think it will happen for decades. The facts are that it requires unanimity of all European members.
“The French, for instance, have said that they would have a referendum on it. I would say very clearly to people, “If your vote in this referendum is being influenced by considerations about Turkish membership of the EU, don’t think about it. It is not remotely on the cards.”
“It is not an issue in this referendum and it shouldn’t be.”
Labour MP Frank Field responded tartly: “And you have told the Turkish Government that?”
Mr Cameron’s comments may well come as a surprise to the Turkish Government – as the Commission statement confirmed, they are currently holding talks with European leaders on reigniting accession talks with a view to joining the Union within the next few years.
They would be forgiven for having assumed that the timescale would not extend to “decades,” as the British Foreign Office itself said three years ago that they expected Turkey would join the bloc “in a decade or so”.
And they would not be remiss in assuming that they had had Mr Cameron’s support for membership – six years ago the Prime Minister said, on a visit to Turkey: “I will remain your strongest possible advocate for EU membership and for greater influence at the top table of EU diplomacy.
“This is something I feel very strongly, very passionately about. Together I want us to pave the road from Ankara to Brussels.”
At the time Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel opposed Turkish accession thanks to concerns regarding a lack of freedom of speech in Turkey and on human rights, among other issues. This appears to have been her position as recently as early October last year.
But by the end of October 2015, driven by the migrant crisis to look more favourably upon Turkey as an ally, she was asking: “How can we organise the accession process more dynamically?”
In a press conference jointly held with Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu, Merkel confirmed: “Germany is ready this year to open Chapter 17, and the make preparations for (chapters) 23 and 24. We can talk about the details”.
UKIP leader Nigel Farage, a long-term critic of European expansionism, called Mr Cameron’s comments “ludicrous” in light of the clear evidence that the EU intends to press on with Turkish accession.
“For the Prime Minister who vowed to fight for Turkey to become a full EU member to now play down the prospect is frankly ludicrous, but shows how Number 10 are willing to say anything to try and keep the UK locked inside the EU,” he said.
He added: “David Cameron has been a massive long-term supporter of full Turkish membership, which would mean open borders with 77 million Turks and make the UK less safe as a country.
“It is clear that a Remain vote is not a vote for the status quo, but for an expansionist, increasingly centralised and dangerous European Union.”