If you take our leaders’ pronouncements at face value.It is candidate country under the EU’s enlargement strategy. Accession has been a mainstay of British foreign policy, and David Cameron has promised to pave the “road from Ankara to Brussels”.
Next week, leaders are set to open a new accession chapter, covering financial and budgetary reform, while Dimitris Avramopoulos, the migration Commissioner, speaks of opening the door to the “European family.”
But is Turkey actually going to join the European Union? It has completed just one accession chapter out of 35 since applying for EEC membership in 1987, and Britain, and all 27 other members, can deploy the veto on accession, and on both the opening and closing of each of the chapters.
Voters are right to be confused. And their confusion is not born of an ignorance of “the facts about Europe”, but of the unspoken rules of a vast and long-running parlour game.
EU EXpansion was once a noble and straightforward affair. Led by British administrations, it allowed our friends in Poland, Latvia and Hungary to emerge from dictatorship, gallop through the convergence criteria (liberalising markets, ensuring free elections and judiciaries and so on) and declare their future as free and independent states rather than hobble on as satellites of Moscow.
That process has ground to a halt, the current Commission ruling out any new accessions until the end of its mandate in 2019, citing the need for consolidation.Instead, enlargement becomes a tool for placing Europe’s neighbours in a holding orbit, with lukewarm intention of pulling them in.
In the Balkans – Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and Albania – this means bolstering the hand of reformist leaders who can promise to bring voters closer to Europe, and disincentivising authoritarianism and the sort of behaviour that would reignite ethnic divisions.
But the EU’s progress report reveals that, to varying degrees, progress towards European norms is stagnant or sluggish: the rule of law faces “major challenges”, judiciaries are politicised, organised crime and corruption rampant. In some areas, reforms are “backsliding”, despite billions in assistance funds.
The broader strategic imperative is spelled out: “If the prospect of moving forward on the road to the EU is seen as real and credible, the risk of countries turning away from the EU will be mitigated.”
“My biggest fear is that the Western Balkans will go below the radar, whatever happens in the UK,” said Tanja Miscevic, Serbia’s lead negotiator.
Some, including senior Brits, think an all-or-nothing model that obliges states such as Albania to ready themselves for Euro membership is farcical, and that a new associate member status is required.
Then there’s Turkey. Cameron wanted to tie a vast, largely Muslim Nato member on the doorstep of the Middle East to Europe, but there was little question of membership five years ago, let alone after Erdogan unleashed a wave of repression against journalists and academics.
The “re-energising” of moribund accession talks this month was a low-cost bribe handed to Erdogan to wave at his voters, in exchange for it halting the flow of migrants over the Mediterranean.
This is the diplomacy of Magritte: Ceci n’est pas un pipe. Everyone in Brussels knows it is a charade, as did everyone in Ankara. (There were shades of Captain Renault as Ilnur Cevik, Erdogan’s chief adviser, told Newsnight that he was “really, really flabbergasted” that he had been “deceived” by Cameron, who in recent weeks has disowned Turkey).
Everyone, that is, apart from European voters. And if Britons decide today that they do not consent to playing along, it will be a major diplomatic catastrophe that risks at the minimum the fragile migrant deal, and could potentially trigger a dangerous unravelling of Europe’s southern neighbourhood. But it will also be predictable, and leaders will only have themselves to blame.