Brexit, the politics of fear, and Turkey the boogeyman

Much ink will be spilled analyzing the results of the U.K. referendum on whether to leave the EU. Some will highlight the xenophobic edge to the “leave” campaign, and how the Brexiteers resorted brazenly to a politics of fear to exploit the public’s worries over immigration.

Not surprisingly, Turkey became the natural pick to serve as the Brexit campaign’s boogeyman. According to the “leave” campaign’s material, Turks are inherently prone to violence and criminality. If Britain remains in the European Union, the thinking goes, it will soon be overrun by flocks of Turks. Former Mayor of London Boris Johnson—one of the staunchest advocates of Brexit—remarked cynically that “he [would] not mind whether Turkey joins the EU, provided that the U.K. leaves the EU.” He has unabashedly stoked fears that EU membership means uncontrolled immigration into Britain, and that Turkish membership to the EU would only make that problem worse. 

Stoking fear of Turkey-the-boogeyman is a longstanding pastime in Europe, stretching back centuries. Turkey’s candidacy for the European Union breathed new life into the practice. When Turkey started to undertake reforms that set the country towards accession negotiations, it was met with mighty resistance in Europe—confirming the deep-seated skepticism in Turkey that “objective” criteria, also applied to Central and Eastern European countries, would not apply to it. The image of the “terrible Turk” appeared once again: to warn the European public of an impending Turkish invasion, and therefore to keep Turkey out of the European Union. 

Old habits die hard

It’s ironic that Boris Johnson—a great-grandson of an Ottoman minister and someone who has previously spoken proudly of his Turkish heritage—would succumb to Turkey-the-boogeyman scare tactics. But he has high political ambitions, which include chipping away at Prime Minister David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party, and Johnson now seems to prefer pandering to populist, euro-skeptic forces. In an attempt to secure his right-side flank, Cameron (who had long supported Turkey’s EU membership, as long as the necessary conditions were met) had a sudden conversion just a few days ago and said that Turkey’s prospects for EU membership before the year 3000 were slim. So he too apparently believes, in some sense, that Turkey is a boogeyman—so Turkey has become a punching bag in the internal Conservative Party power struggle too. 

Mirror images?

It goes without saying that Turkey is not in the shape that it was a decade ago. It is no longer the darling of the international community with an enviable growth rate, and its soft power has waned dramatically. Instead, both its democracy and its economy are limping along, at best—though, to be fair, its economy is growing faster than the EU’s. And Turks are no strangers to the kinds of politics of fear we’ve seen in the U.K.—their increasingly authoritarian and repressive leader, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is adept at stoking fear too. Meanwhile, he’s assumed a defiant posture towards Europe, threatening, for example, to lower the drawbridge on Greece and Bulgaria and unleash a repeat of last year’s migration crisis. These kinds of threats, of course, only bolster voices like Boris Johnson back in Britain. 

It’s quite remarkable that at the same time as prominent figures in both the “leave” and “remain” campaigns are engaging in forms of Turkey-bashing, they apparently borrow lexicon from the Turkish leader himself—employing a language of intolerance and xenophobia. This could not have been—and indeed, was not—what early promoters of European integration like Winston Churchill envisaged for their continent. They had seen the horrors that could come when politics of fear spun out of control. 

Regardless of the British referendum results, there has already been much damage inflicted on the West’s liberal image. This is why when ink is spilled in the coming days, discussing the vote’s results, we must also take a hard look at eroding liberal democratic standards and values. The very foundations of European—including British—democracies are being shaken: What will this mean for the European integration project? It seems surprising today, but there was actually a time when there were European leaders who pushed for Turkish membership in the EU—yes, Turkey the boogeyman—in order to strengthen this very project. Times and sentiments, as well as conceptions of democracy, have obviously changed. Welcome populism, welcome politics of fear, and pity to those Turks that genuinely believed in Europe’s strength as a bastion of liberal democracy and integration.