In April, I wrote about how the EU’s warmth towards Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly dictatorial regime in Turkey undermined one of its greatest selling points: creating incentives towards liberal behaviour amongst its neighbours.
Ankara still has Brussels over a barrel, as the latter prepares to offer Turks visa-free travel with the Schengen zone. But today’s Sunday Times (£) reveals that the British Government, which is not part of the free-travel area, is mulling its own arrangement with Turkey.
The paper quotes Janet Douglas, deputy head of mission in Ankara, advocating the measure. She said:
“One option would be to assess again the possibility of visa travel for Turkish special passport holders which would be a risk, but a significant and symbolic gesture to Turkey.”
Note “again”. That suggests that, rather than simply being one diplomat floating an idea, the prospect of some kind of free travel arrangement with Turkey (or at least with those Turks who hold whatever a “special passport” is) is not a new one in Government circles.
The Leave campaign have accused David Cameron of trying to keep plans for some kind of Turkish deal under wraps until after the referendum, although Downing Street deny they have any such intentions.
However, with immigration one of the key issues driving the Leave vote, we can see why the issue would be sensitive. After all, the UK will almost certainly feel the effects of the EU-Turkey arrangement even if it doesn’t strike its own deal with Ankara.
Once Turks have access to the Schengen Zone there is nothing to stop them coming to Calais, where we have already seen plenty of people for whom having most of continental Europe to settle in just isn’t good enough.
What happens a few years down the line, when Turkish citizens have been resident in EU countries for a while and started acquiring citizenship? They will one and all have the right to live and work in the UK, whether they choose to or not.
Whether things would actually play out this way, or an influx of young Turkish workers would be bad for Britain if it did, is almost immaterial at this stage in the campaign. Plenty of voters – including much of the vital working-class Labour vote which could tip the contest for Leave – have firm opinions on the matter.
Remain is not without counter-arguments. The UK is not in Schengen, and any bilateral arrangement with Turkey would be struck on terms negotiated by the British Government – just the sort of thing Brexiteers claim to want more of.
Moreover, if the Brussels-Ankara agreement really were detrimental to British interests then, as a member of the EU, the Prime Minister could veto it – a clear demonstration of our influence in Europe, they might say.
Of course, such a stance would be complicated greatly by the fact that it is still official policy to support Turkish accession to the EU, with all the settlement rights and absence of bilateralism implied by that.
The odds of Cameron wielding his veto also seem fantastically slim, not least because Erdogan would probably allow an unchecked flow of refugees into Europe – and thus, to Calais – as a result.
Aside from the obvious immigration angle, this Turkey story reinforces one of the Leave campaign’s most important lines: that ‘the devil you know’ isn’t on the ballot paper, and there is plenty of uncertainty and potential risk to the UK in years to come as the EU tries to adapt to the challenges of mass migration and its malfunctioning economy.