Talk about a possible EU referendum does not come as a novelty to the British electorate. What is new, however, is that Prime Minister David Cameron did confirm he will hold one, although it might be in the somewhat distant future, conditional on winning a general election! Hence, no need for Ankara to sound the alarm bells -- Turkey's major EU ally is not abandoning ship just yet, if ever.
An EU candidate country basically wants to join a once-again flourishing, prosperous group of nations. In the word “nations” lurks a dilemma though: Is the EU supposed to be a single market composed of nation-states which do not cede to exist or is it en route to becoming the United States of Europe? Ankara's political influence over shaping today's EU policies during the accession process is limited, but if what I hear from members of the Turkish public is any indicator, ceding all national sovereignty and turning the Republic of Turkey into nothing but a European federal state or region is out of the question, particularly in light of the approaching centenary in 2023. With this in mind Cameron's anti-political union sentiments reiterated at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos may one day find open doors in Turkey but Ankara will not necessarily lend support to him at this crucial stage of its own membership negotiations. Assuming that Turkey once being accepted will be in a very powerful position, it is only then that Ankara can suggest alternative levels of integration if so desired.
With regard to the UK, almost two years ago a colleague from England involved in British politics had asked me how I would phrase the wording for such a public vote which was always on the agenda yet never openly declared. I said I prefer a clear-cut “Yes” or “No” ballot, but all depends on whether the question is formulated as, “Shall we stay in the EU?” or as “Shall the UK leave the EU altogether?” If put in the first manner chances are those who prefer to stay in will narrowly win; if asked by means of the latter formula I expect an equally narrow majority to say we should leave. It is inherent in the human nature that we simply prefer to answer questions in the affirmative instead of ticking whatever question is printed left from the “No” box.
Could the UK survive without EU membership? Of course it could! London as a global marketplace eventually weathered all economic storms even without Britain being a member of the eurozone. Trade with the EU would not stop, either. The UK would most probably not leave the Customs Union anyways, hence the EU and the UK would not part ways for good but simply come to a different, concentric circles type of arrangement. Will Cameron win an absolute majority in the next general elections? Perhaps! Could the opposition become truly European and garner enough votes for a Red-Yellow coalition? Not entirely impossible either. The race is on; the decisive election issue is Europe.
And last but not least, the EU itself. Brussels would not normally want to see London bid farewell as this may open the floodgates for copycats, which must be a federalist's nightmare. Hence, Brussels may woo the British electorate ahead of the referendum if it really takes place about the pro's of staying in. Brussels may offer a certain amount of opt-outs to London. Only if today's EU elites sense danger coming in the form of that Britain "staying in" would ultimately threaten their dream of a full-fledged political union many would argue "let them go."
To sum up, Turkey needs the UK within the EU and not at its fringes. Actually, two economically strong member states (the UK, Turkey) could become the EU's life-vest if, and only if the subject of an ever closer political union is temporarily shelved. A political union in itself will not guarantee economic welfare; only economic stability and prosperity may one day facilitate a closer political union.
Until then: UK out, Turkey in the EU by 2018? I hope not; I'd rather wish for "both in" paired with lots of economic clout and influence!