Britain nears its “Cavafy moment”

Britain nears its “Cavafy moment”

Turkey is the scarecrow for anti-EU campaigners in Britain as the Brexit referendum gets closer. The argument is a simple one: “If we remain in the EU, we will be flooded by 72 million Turks once Turkey becomes a member.” Some British papers have even conducted opinion polls to show that this is what the majority of Britons believe.  

The British are considered to be an intelligent nation. Their achievements prove this to be the case. But a considerable number of them are obviously having a momentary lapse in this regard. 

The less than intelligent manner in which Turkey has been instrumentalized by the anti-EU campaign appears to have been successful too. Even U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has felt the need to come out and say that Turkey will not become an EU member before 3000. That is almost a millennium from now. 

Boris Johnson, a leader in the anti-EU campaign whose grandfather, by a strange quirk of fate, is a Turk, should be the first one to know how ridiculous all of this sounds to any sensible outsider.

The manner in which Turkey has been instrumentalized in Britain today features much less in the Turkish media than one might have expected. This could be because Turks are too preoccupied with their own overwhelming problems. Or it could simply be that the whole issue is too ridiculous to dwell on.

Just to set the record straight on the Brexit debate, Turkey is not likely to be an EU member anytime soon, if ever. This is not simply because of the standoffish attitude of many in Europe, but also because of a host of other factors which have made EU membership a less desirable option for Turks than was the case in the past.

This is why President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan can tell the EU that “Turkey is more than ready to go its own way and let the EU go its way” without risking any political backlash at home. That is the kind of argument that scores political points in Turkey today, not promoting an imaginary membership in the EU.

To return to Cameron’s hyperbole, it is doubtful that the EU itself will survive in its present form over the next 5-10 years, let alone a millennium. Given the interactive nature of today’s world, proved again by the negative fallout from the Syrian crisis, it is also doubtful that any sensible government in Europe can afford to cold-shoulder Turkey, whatever their political needs of the short-term may be.

Put another way, Turkey will continue to interact with Europe, both positively and negatively, on all levels, whether it is an EU member or not, or whether the EU itself survives its present crises or not. This has been the case since the time of Elizabeth I. 

I am with those who believe that the majority of British people are not stupid enough to dump their EU membership, whatever reservations they may have about it. Turkey as it is today, however, is living proof that a country can be taken over by self-destructive tendencies.

One can also not suppress a surreptitious desire for the anti-EU campaign in Britain to win. The negative chain reaction that many are certain will follow will have been well deserved. 

Looked at from a cynically realistic perspective, though, this could also be good for Turkey. A Britain that is out of the EU is also a Britain that is lonelier and in more need of strategic partners for political and economic reasons. 

The bottom line, however, is that a victory for the anti-EU camp will turn out to be Britain’s “Cavafy” moment vis-à-vis Turkey. This refers to the poem by Alexandrian Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy called “Waiting for the Barbarians,” which American poet Charles Simic called “an apt description of any state that needs enemies, real or imaginary, as a perpetual excuse.” 

Once it becomes apparent that the barbarians are not coming after all, the poem ends with the following verse:

“Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians? 

Those people were a kind of solution.”