UK-EU relations and Turkey

The recently reelected Conservative Party under the leadership of British Prime Minister David Cameron has committed itself to a referendum that will decide the fate of the United Kingdom’s relations with the European Union (EU).

The UK is already an outlier in EU affairs. It is not a member of the currency union or the Schengen agreement, which regulates the EU’s visa policies.

At a time when Germany and France seem to be moving forward with plans for a stronger fiscal and banking union to complement the monetary union, British public opinion (with the exception of Scotland) is growing increasingly skeptical about its future in Europe. Cameron promised a referendum on EU membership by the end of 2017, but the vote could come far sooner. The markets hate the kind of uncertainty that will hang over Britain’s economic and political fortunes for the next two and a half years. According to opinion polls, if the referendum was held today, the result would be very close and slightly in favor of Britain choosing to stay in the EU. However, the momentum is on the side of those who want Britain to leave the EU — in favor of the so-called “Brexit” scenario.

Why is all this very important for Turkey? The short answer is because the future of EU-UK relations may evolve into something interesting for Turkey. Instead of a full divorce, the potential Brexit scenario is likely to create a new type of relationship between London and Brussels. In time, this may provide the blueprint for the “privileged partnership” that France and Germany seem to favor with Turkey. In short, the emergence of a privileged partnership between London and Brussels could serve as a model for Turkey’s relations with the EU as well. The already existing “a la carte” relationship between the EU and the UK could even be codified into a category of membership that would be applicable to other countries opting to be out of the inner-circle of the EU.

Under normal circumstances, it would not be in Turkey’s national interest to lose the UK, which is one of the strongest supporters of Ankara in the European Union. But one can also see the limits of British influence in the EU. After all, the EU takes decisions based on unanimity. And when French or German leaders take decisions on Turkish membership, they hardly feel the urge to consult with London. A privileged partnership between the EU and the UK would make the concept more marketable to Turkey. Right now, Ankara considers it second-class membership. But with the UK opting for it, this may change. Moreover, Turkey and Britain both share similar political cultures. They are both very keen to protect their national sovereignty and independence. With strong imperial legacies, they both feel somewhat distant from the post-nationalist and federalist tendencies of Berlin and Paris. If Turkey had been a member, it would probably have sided with the UK rather than with Germany and France on foreign and security matters.

At the heart of Turkey’s resentment towards Europe is a feeling of humiliation. It is because of such feelings of European prejudice that an overwhelming majority of Turks believe that their country will never be granted full membership to the EU. No one in Turkey believes that the EU treats Turkey with respect. This is why it is important that Turks opt for privileged partnership instead of any imposition coming from Brussels. If the future of EU-UK relations evolves into an applicable model, Turkey should hold its own referendum in the near future. The question for Turks should be clear: Do you want a privileged partnership with the EU? Brussels should than take quotyesquot as an answer and herald the UK and Turkey as two strong, privileged partners.