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Has Turkey become a scapegoat in the fiery Brexit debate?

Many are using the "Turkey card" ahead of the referendum on Britain's exit from the EU – popularly known as Brexit

Menekse Tokyay

Published: Updated:

With controversies over its democracy and external challenges such as the flow of migrant, Turkey’s place in Europe has again become a debate for Euroskeptics in Britain.

Many are using the "Turkey card" ahead of the referendum on Britain's exit from the EU – popularly known as Brexit – to be held on June 23.

But experts interviewed by Al Arabiya English believe that such an immigration-focused prejudice is just a tactical and populist move that feeds into domestic debates.

On Sunday, British PM David Cameron showed his deep pessimism toward Turkey’s bid to join the EU, saying in an interview would only be able to join the European Union “in about the year 3000.”

The remark came as a reaction to his defense minister and pro-Brexit campaigner Penny Mordaunt’s recent claims that Britain will be not able to veto Turkey’s membership and that UK could not stop the flow of thousands of criminals when Turkey, with its significantly higher murder rates, kidnap and gun ownership, joins the EU.

"Absolutely wrong,” Cameron said in response to the claim. “Britain and every other country in the European Union has a veto on another country joining."

According to Ozgur Unluhisarcikli, Ankara Office Director of the German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Brexit camp’s argument that Turkey's accession to the EU is imminent and will put Britons at greater risk of crime is totally baseless for three reasons.

“First of all Turkey's eventual accession to the EU is not even likely. Second, the UK has no reason to be concerned about the free movement of people as it is not part of the Schengen area,” Unluhisarcikli told Al Arabiya English.

Third, Unluhisarcikli added, the argument that “thousands of criminals” will be a part of the EU when Turkey joins the bloc is not only factually baseless, it is also borderline racist.

Ankara alarm

But he also highlighted that Turkey should work hard to prevent such perceived prejudices.

“How Turkey has turned itself into a useful argument for populist fear-mongers in several European countries is another case. Turkey’s worsening image in Europe should be alarming for Ankara,” Unluhisarcikli said.

Turkey’s first application to join the then European Community dates back to 1987, while the country has held ascension negotiations with the EU since 2005. But in recent years, the membership process has seriously stalled amid concerns about the country’s progress on human rights, freedom of media and expression as well as a decades-long dispute with Cyprus.

The relations took a new turn recently with a Turkey-EU refugee deal on tackling migrant flow across the Mediterranean in exchange for visa-free travel for Turkish citizens once the benchmark criteria are met. The UK also took part in this agreement.

Brexit campaigners also speculate that a significant portion of Turkey’s population – expected to reach 82 million by 2020 — will try to come to Britain, which will threaten the UK’s domestic security and bring extra costs for public services.

Not attacking Turkey

Ozdem Sanberk, a former Turkish Ambassador to the United Kingdom, believes that Cameron, who was in fact a staunch supporter of Turkey’s ascension to the EU once it meets the criteria, was not attacking Turkey at all in his speech.

“Cameron is just saying that progress is very slow at the moment and that Turkey’s EU membership is not an issue on the agenda,” Sanberk told Al Arabiya English.

For Sanberk, on the one hand it is a populist move to spread fear by using the Schengen trump card for a country that is out of Schengen free-travel zone, while on the other hand, Turkey’s drift toward authoritarianism is also a valid claim especially in period when Turkey’s EU membership bid slides into oblivion.

Sanberk also noted that there is also an obvious anti-Cameron trend in Turkey’s pro-government media.

“Recently, the state-run news agency Anadolu Agency had an exclusive interview with a London-based Muslim preacher, Suliman Gani, who accused Cameron of being Islamophobic and racist,” he added.

Ozgehan Senyuva, an expert on EU-Turkey relations from Ankara’s Middle Eastern Technical University, thinks that dragging Turkey into the Brexit discussion is just a progression of the debate on the European Union in Britain.

“This is only a reflection of how European identity is not deeply rooted within British public opinion. Brits are the only European people, besides the Turks, who still use the notion of "going to Europe" in their everyday speak,” he said, in reference to travelers.

Having not yet published any statement on the matter, the office of Turkey’s foreign ministry did not respond to Al Arabiya English’s request for comment.