The United Kingdom is discovering the pitfalls of using a simple political tool to make a historical decision on a complex and contentious issue.
The June 23rd referendum on whether to remain in or to leave European Union has already turned into a polarising and ugly contest.
The burning question of Britain’s future in Europe and the wider world has been with us for many years. An honest and dispassionate reckoning with a wide range of key topics including immigration, sovereignty, security, economy and trade have long been overdue.
The fundamental questions about Britain’s political, economic and security interests in relation to its membership of the EU needed to be confronted and the disenchantment with the rapid social change had to be recognized.
A properly-fought parliamentary election as an instrument of democratic decision making on a complex issue with long term implications would have been better but the Conservative Party government, faced with an internal revolt, chose to have a plebiscite, instead.
For several years, the main political parties, civic organisations and a large part of the media have been overly complacent about the legitimate anxieties of people, allowing the debate to be framed and led by populist politicians.
With just under two weeks to go until the referendum, the populist camp, those seeking to get Britain out of EU, are still determining the focus and the tone of the debate.
Not surprisingly, immigration is at the centre of it but surprisingly, the biggest bogeyman happens to be Turkey- or to be more precise, a prospective massive flow of migration from Turkey.
The Leave camp directs its fire at Turkey and claims that Turkey’s possible future membership of the EU would open the floodgates for Britain to be overrun by millions of new immigrants.
Europhiles, on the other hand, accuse their opponents of scaremongering. Not because they refute the Brexit claims about Turkey but because they never really believe Turkey could ever become a member of the EU.
Xenophobia feeds cynicism; cynicism obfuscates the facts.
Whilst the largely well-integrated, enterprising Turkish community in Britain watches all this with growing dismay, Turkey’s leaders do their best to give further ammunition to the irrelevant and irrational debate.
Both the Leave and Remain side expresses concerns about democracy and human rights in Turkey to support their arguments.
As the Guardian newspaper puts it, just then, Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, happens to approve a draconian new law that “destroys what remains of Turkey’s system of democratic checks and balances, in effect demolishing any notion that his country is a fully functioning, western-style democracy”.
The Leave camp resorts to scaremongering, using Turkey’s high birth rate as a threat to Britain’s social services; simultaneously, Mr. Erdogan calls on Muslims to reject contraception and have more children.
British politicians argue that Turkey does not share European values; statements and policy decisions in Turkey quickly confirm their views.
Deadly attacks in Turkey’s cities by the Kurdish and Islamist armed groups, and the perception that Turkey is unable to guarantee the security of its citizens and visitors further strengthen the case of the anti-EU, anti-Turkish commentators.
Even the most committed Europhiles would agree that the EU has many flaws and by now, the serious shortcomings in Turkish democracy have become obvious for all to see.
For many, both the EU and Turkey have failed to live up to their high expectations.
Now, one can only hope that, on the 23rd of June, the populist and xenophobic winds of the referendum campaign will not blow away the things that makes Britain “Great”, too.
This post is also available in: Turkish