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One focus of the Vote Leave campaign has been the possibility of Turkey joining the EU and the risks for the UK if it does. In combination with the visa-free EU travel deal offered to Ankara in exchange for hosting migrants who reach Greece, could it result in unsustainable Turkish migration to the UK, as pro-Brexit justice secretary Michael Gove has suggested — and is this something British voters should worry about when deciding which way to vote in the EU referendum?
The EU-Turkey migrant deal is — and was from the outset — more than a bit rough around the edges. While for the moment it has stemmed the tide of refugees from Syria travelling across Turkey into the EU, its future depends on its provision for visa-free travel. That in turn depends on Ankara being willing and able to meet 72 conditions laid down by the EU in 2013. Turkey has met all but five, and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has made clear he will under no circumstances change the catch-all anti-terror legislation that nets academics, journalists and dissidents — and soon very probably Kurdish MPs as well — in addition to alleged terrorists.
It is hard to see the EU in even its most transactional and supine mode agreeing simply to waive this requirement. Angela Merkel, German chancellor, returns to Turkey this weekend to talk to Mr Erdogan. What might happen is deferral of the visa question until October, which looks more in line with the Turkish president’s timetable for securing unconstrained one-man rule.
But either way, the UK is not in any case in the Schengen zone to which visa-free travel would apply. That does not inhibit the Brexit camp from playing the Turkey card.
It should also be acknowledged that offering visa-free access to a mainly Muslim country of 80m people is not an obvious antidote to EU panic over a surge so far of about 1m refugees.
If Turkey were about to join the EU, the Leave campaign would have a point. As it is, they don’t — since Turkey is highly unlikely ever to join. It first applied in 1963 so we’re not talking rapid progress here. I don’t even think the visa-free travel deal will go through; but if it does, the UK is not in the Schengen zone so will not be party to it.
Nonetheless, the proposed deal indicates the extent to which the referendum is taking place in the shadow of Europe’s migration crisis. There is a fear among British Eurosceptics that Syrian migrants to Germany will eventually move in large numbers to the UK once equipped with EU passports. The detail of Turkish membership prospects and the visa deal risks being drowned out amid a general fear of mass migration to the EU, and then to Britain, from the Muslim world.
The UK does exactly what it wants about Turkish immigration; and that is equally true whether it remains inside the EU or votes to leave. The EU-Turkey deal extends only the offer of visa-free short-term travel to the Schengen zone — no immigration or residence rights in any Schengen country, let alone Britain. As for Turkey becoming a member of the EU, and thereby obtaining free movement rights, that will happen only if the UK (and every other existing member state) accepts it, and on conditions that achieve unanimity.
All that is to say it’s very far off, even if it ever happens; and if it did the conditions would certainly include an extensive delay on free movement. Using Turkey as an argument for Brexit is either moronic or mendacious.
The UK should not worry about Turkish immigration. Even if the EU-Turkey visa deal goes ahead, it will not apply to the UK. Turkish citizens would have a right to travel throughout much of continental Europe without a visa but no new rights of residence anywhere, let alone in the UK, where they would still require a visa for entry.
The only possible way Turkey could present an immigration problem for Britain is if it joined the EU. Britain holds a veto over that decision so, if UK citizens are against, Turkey will not join.
For reasons exhaustively discussed above, the UK should not worry about current Turkish immigrants.
However, it is striking how far the UK’s longstanding position on Turkish membership of the EU and hence free movement of labour throughout the union has moved. Just two years ago David Cameron was still saying that an EU without Turkey was “weaker, not stronger”. Today the UK prime minister insists the country will not join for decades and urges voters to ignore the issue in the Brexit referendum.
Given that the UK has always been one of the strongest supporters of EU expansion, the remarkable shift in sentiment as a result of the migrant crisis shows how quickly established positions have crumbled.
So while the UK should not worry about Turkish migrants today, it should certainly stand back and consider what the size and shape of the EU is likely to be in the future
The answer on this is quite straightforward: Turkey is not going to become a member of the EU. It was never likely to do so. But President Erdogan’s march to autocracy now makes it inconceivable.
Should Turkey nevertheless become a member we would have to introduce transitional controls on immigration that would last a very long time. But Turkey could not become a member of the EU without British agreement.
Do you think British voters should be worried about the EU’s deal with Turkey? Let us know your thoughts in the comments and we’ll feature the best contributions.