Today’s Observer today carries two stories that the paper doesn’t link but that are none the less connected. The first is an attack on Michael Gove over his recent warning over the consequences of future Turkish accession if Britain votes to Remain. The second is a report about the effect that Norbert Hofer, who may today become Austria’s new President, and his Freedom Party are having on a bourgeois town in that country.
It may well be right to say that Turkey – plus Albania, Montenegro, Macedonia, and Serbia – will not join the EU by 2020, and that the Justice Secretary is mistaken in so suggesting. But we cannot be sure what will happen next. On the one hand, mainstream European parties are increasingly alarmed by the effect of mass immigration on their chances of gaining and holding office. On the other, and as Mark Wallace argued on this site earlier this month, Erdogan has them over a negotiating barrel.
Put simply, the latter’s stance is: let more Turkish migrants into Europe, or we will send you more refugees. As Mark wrote, “Turkey has realised the obvious: that it can demand a high price for its co-operation in stopping refugees and other migrants crossing the Aegean, or failing that it can extort a high price by threatening to effectively wave even more migrants through. Erdogan is not known for passing up opportunities to get what he wants, and he has grabbed the chance eagerly.”
Then there is the question of a possible European deal with Turkey over visas.
It is true that any such agreement – and one has not yet been agreed, and may not be at all – would be confined to Schengen countries. However, the matter of Turkey and migration and the EU and Britain is not that simple. To quote Mark again: “we aren’t in Schengen, but British voters aren’t stupid – they know the deal involves hefty subsidies for Turkey and even looser controls on access to the continent, as well as attendant security risks and another potential route for asylum claimants to mass in Calais”.
The core question for many British voters is a simple one: do they really trust the EU to play its part in controlling migration across the continent effectively? Whatever one’s view on our EU membership, or whether or not one plans to vote Remain or Leave, the answer surely is that very many of them do not. And it’s the same in other European countries. That’s why support for Marine Le Pen is swelling in France, and why Hofer may be elected President of his country later today.
The EU is often seen as a beacon of democratic values for former fascist countries in the olive belt and former communist ones in Eastern Europe. It is now more accurately viewed, with its porous borders and single currency, as an engine of instability and, in southern Europe, recession and employment. That a fascism-tainted pistol-wielder stands on the verge of his country’s highest office backs up Gove’s case – and should be a signpost to Brexit.