Why the British elections matter to Turkey

On Thursday British citizens will elect a new parliament.

The outcome of that vote matters to Turkey for reasons that are not so obvious at first glance. It has little to do with most of the news generated these days about the elections: the tight race between the Conservatives and Labour, the consequences of a hung parliament where no party will have an absolute majority or the potential role of the Scottish National Party as kingmaker.

The important issue for Turkey — and the rest of Europe — is the future of Britain inside the European Union. As a reaction to widespread EU skepticism in his own party, Conservative leader and incumbent Prime Minister David Cameron has promised to hold an in-or-out referendum on Britain’s EU membership in 2017 should the Conservatives win the election.

Cameron wants to use the next two years to renegotiate the UK’s position in the EU. Although it is not very clear what his preferred end goal looks like and how he is planning to convince the other European leaders to give in to his demands, the idea of a referendum on a new relationship between the UK and the EU makes sense.

The EU — or, to be more precise, the countries of the eurozone — is in the middle of a fundamental rearrangement of their economic, financial and eventually also political relations. In order for the euro to survive, it is clear the EU needs further integration and a change to the current treaties to make that closer union possible. That will inevitably mean that countries like the UK that have decided to keep their own currency and not to participate in some other EU policies (such as free movement within the Schengen area) will have to rethink their future relationship with this further integrated core of EU countries.

The UK has always been in a special position in the EU, afraid to lose parts of its sovereignty to what is seen by many British politicians as an emerging super state in Brussels. Forget about the exaggerations and misperceptions, whether one likes it or not, the EU has been a controversial and divisive topic in London for a long time and has negatively influenced the UK’s willingness to play a constructive role inside the EU. The moment has come for the Brits to make up their mind: Do they want to get out of the current EU and stop blocking necessary changes? Do they wish to stay in, albeit on the margins, and accept that the majority of EU member states moves on? Or do they want to try to make the EU a more acceptable place for themselves and other European countries that wish to be part of the union but prefer, for whatever reasons, not to integrate any further?

Cameron should be praised for promoting the third option. At the same time, he should be criticized for his vagueness and his miscalculation that these fundamental changes can be completed in two years. That will take more time. Most major players in the EU still prefer to postpone such a vital debate because it might open Pandora’s box and could lead to other referendums around Europe with uncertain results. They desperately try to bend the current rules and implement all kind of sweeping reforms without changing the existing treaties. It is a dead-end operation that will only fuel the brewing EU skepticism in other countries.

So we need the Brits to keep up the pressure on the rest of the EU to sit down and talk treaty change openly. The best guarantee that this will happen is, I hate to say as a left-leaning person, another Conservative-Liberal coalition government. Labour is simply too ambiguous and hesitant about it.

Why does all of this matter to Turkey? After 10 years of negotiations about full EU membership that are going nowhere because both sides lack the conviction that it can and should be done, I am convinced Turkey and the EU would be better off when another option becomes available: A kind of associate membership that would allow Turkey (and other candidates) to participate, within a well-defined framework, in EU policies it likes and stay out of those it thinks are not beneficial to Turkey. Indeed, this is the sort of solution the British are looking for. Let’s hope they manage to find it.