When Eurosceptics become Europhiles: Far-right opposition to Turkish involvement in the European Union

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, Global politics, Political ideologies, Racism and the far right, UK politics

Katy Brown is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Politics, Languages and International Studies at the University of Bath

Turkish involvement in the European Union has long proved controversial among Europe’s elites. In the recent context of the so-called ‘migrant crisis’, coupled with the mainstreaming of Islamophobia and rising Euroscepticism, debate over Turkey has surfaced again with renewed vigour. Indeed, the topic featured heavily in the Brexit campaign, with Nigel Farage, for example, claiming that ‘Turkey in means Britain out’.

Scholars (Tekin 2008; Challand 2009) have linked such hostility towards Turkey with the desired construction of European identity. However, while building a ‘supra-nationalist’ identity is clearly of interest to those engaged in supporting the EU, few studies have noted the role Turkey plays in the discourse of parties that explicitly reject Europe. These parties, which obviously have no stake in politically unifying Europe and are openly Eurosceptic, ardently defend it in order to reject Turkey based on its supposed ‘non-Europeanness’.

So, how and why do far right, Eurosceptic parties in the United Kingdom and France construct Turkey as a dangerous other?

To explore these issues, articles containing the word ‘Turkey’ or ‘Turquie’ were collated from the official party websites of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Front National/Rassemblement National (FN/RN), covering a five-year period between 2013 and 2018. These texts were analysed using a combined approach to Critical Discourse Studies, incorporating elements of Discourse Theory and Corpus Linguistics. The results are as follows.

Turkey as an 'other'

"It is too big, too poor and too different from us." (UKIP, 4 May 2016)

Turkey undergoes constant negative outgroup depiction by both parties. Drawing on theories of Islamophobia and Orientalism, findings highlight that excluding Turkey by means of ‘cultural incompatibility’ does not constitute a new phenomenon linked to EU integration, but instead forms part of a longer tradition of racism towards ‘the Orient’.

State: a political 'other'

"... he's dreaming of a new Ottoman Empire and an Islamised Europe." (FN/RN, 25 February 2016)

Concordance searches of ‘Erdoğan’, ‘President’ and ‘leader’ uncovered Orientalist nomination strategies and metaphors alluding to empire, such as ‘sultan’, ‘Ottoman’ and a ‘future caliphate’. Thus, despite legitimate concerns over Erdoğan’s actions towards Turkish people, the use of Orientalist strategies underlines the implicit meaning behind the criticisms to create a form of cultural othering.

By associating Erdoğan with historical divisions through metaphor, the parties imply that he forms part of a longer tradition of problematic leaders and political tension between East and West, rather than an isolated case.

People: a civilizational 'other'

"... a timely reminder of the fundamental differences between Turkish and European values." (UKIP, 20 January 2016)

Turkish civilization is presented as irretrievably ‘different’ from that of Europe, with Turkish people placed at the heart of the country’s incompatibility, both politically and culturally. Characteristics or actions mostly associated with individuals are ascribed to the whole country, claiming for example that ‘she has a mindset totally at odds with that of European ideals’ (UKIP, 10 November 2015).

Personification of the nation serves to homogenise Turkish people and culture into a monolithic bloc of backwardness. Religion is central to this construction, particularly emphasised by the comparison made to Christians living in the Middle East:

"Deliverers of balance and stability, bearers of a centuries-old identity, vectors of harmony in a rich religious tapestry within which they are a fundamental part, Christians are the guarantors of pluralism in Middle Eastern societies, including Turkey." (FN/RN, 10 November 2017)

By constituting the counterpart to this description, Muslims are implied to be lacking in these qualities. Consequently, and critically, Turkish people, defined by their ‘Muslimness’, are depicted not only as different from, but also inferior to, Europeans and European cultural heritage.

Turkey as a threat

"That will alter the balance of power within the EU, not only economically but also culturally." (UKIP, 28 April 2016)

The above othering strategies do not simply serve as a delineation of difference, because through articulation and narrative form, these ‘differences’ become a source of danger for Europe.

Migration is the vehicle through which Turkey’s ‘difference’ becomes a threat and it holds central importance in both cases studied. Arguments go beyond classic economic concerns, in which migrants threaten resources and jobs, but take on a cultural characteristic implying civilizational incompatibility, which is amplified and weaponised further when articulated with the implied threat of terrorism.

Migration: economic and cultural threat

"You have declared the lands of our peoples 'lands open to mass immigration and Turkish influence.'” (FN/RN, 11 May 2016)

Opposition to migration can be separated according to two principal arguments based on scale (i.e. too many potential Turkish migrants) and kind (i.e. Turkish migrants are not desirable). Statistics are used flexibly to amplify the size of Turkey’s population, with eight different figures ranging from 72 to 90 million cited regularly, often alongside hyperbolic warnings such as ‘80 million Turks could now enter Europe’ (FN/RN, 1 May 2016).

The sense of danger to Europe is compounded by water metaphors such as ‘wave’, ‘influx’ and ‘infiltration’, which insinuate the arrival of vast and uncontrollable numbers of migrants, echoing elements of the extreme right theory of the ‘Great Replacement’.

Furthermore, Turkish migrants are portrayed to be undesirable and culturally incompatible with liberal progressiveness. For example, they are depicted to pose a threat to European women through chauvinistic values and violence.

"... unprecedented numbers of male migrants coming to Europe who do not share European values, which has resulted in spikes in crimes such as rape and the sexual intimidation of women." (UKIP, 18 October 2017)

Here, modal verbs are avoided to bestow a sense of factual validity on to claims that are unsubstantiated, for example using ‘has resulted’ to imply a confirmed causal relationship. Thus, by linking sexual violence with migration so unequivocally, it is presented as an exclusively ‘non-European’ problem.

While the Muslim identity of these migrants ‘who do not share European values’ is not explicitly stated, the context of the widespread instrumentalization and manipulation of feminist ideas by the far right to target Islam signifies that the association is presupposed.

Terrorism: security and cultural threat

"... the wave of people taking up this call also allowed for infiltration from terrorists opposed to Western values." (UKIP, 13 September 2016)

Depictions of cultural threat are typified by Turkey’s repeated association with terrorism. As Kundnani suggests, ‘the political act of labelling certain forms of violence as terrorism is also usually a racialised act’. Indeed, given its articulation with a negatively constructed Turkish people, the notion that Turkey poses a security risk clearly derives directly from its Muslim-majority status.

Studies, such as those by Kearns, Betus and Lemieux (2017) and Morin (2016), underline the ways that media framing and coverage portray acts of violence differently according to the perceived identity (i.e. Muslim/non-Muslim) of the attacker, constructing and reinforcing the discourse that terrorism is a uniquely Muslim problem.

This is compounded by the presentation of those not actively engaged in the terrorist act itself as instead implicitly supporting its aims. Immigration from Turkey is portrayed to pose a risk through the infiltration of extremists who preach hate rather than commit violent crimes, or of people who through their silence demonstrate complicity:

"Europe’s Muslims must do more to root out extremists that exist in their midst." (UKIP, 28 January 2015)

By making Muslims responsible for not standing against terrorism, the group becomes unilaterally culpable for terrorism in the West. It reflects Tuastad's new barbarism thesis, in which terrorism is disassociated from political motivations and is instead ‘seen as deeply rooted in local culture’. Violence becomes a cultural characteristic, portrayed almost as innate and biological, underlining the similarities between ‘old’ and ‘new’ racisms. Thus, the securitisation of Islam and immigration proves a powerful combination.

From Eurosceptics to Europhiles

Turkey is constructed as a dangerous other in a variety of ways, with an Orientalist and Islamophobic depiction of culture as the principal foundation for this threatening difference.

Although not the first to note the exclusion of Turkey on these grounds, these strategies are often attributed to the construction of a European supra-national identity. However, the strongly Eurosceptic positions of UKIP and the FN/RN signify that they are not engaged in this identity-building process. Such issues are not limited to the far right alone, and indeed, Boris Johnson’s denial of stoking Turkey fears (18 January, 2019) in the Brexit campaign illustrates that studies of mainstream parties and actors in this regard are much-needed.

The way in which ideas are articulated in the data strengthens their effect, and a cumulative notion of danger is acquired through this association between elements, creating a hegemonic discourse around the nodal point of Turkey. Othering is achieved through numerous avenues related to geography, history, politics and civilization, but supposed cultural difference, based on the country’s association with Islam, must be understood as the link underpinning all forms.

The same is true for its depiction as a danger to Europe; whether outwardly related to the economy, security or sexual violence, a negative construction of Turkish, and specifically Muslim, culture underlies all threat-creation topoi. Islamophobia is woven into the fabric of these exclusions in both subtle and explicit ways, and the prominence of myths deriving from Orientalism reveal the historical foundations of these discourses.

Critically, a civilizational clash rooted in Orientalist divisions of East and West, as well as Islamophobic myths, is constructed to exclude Turkey permanently from a mythical vision of ‘Europeanness’. The transformation of Eurosceptics into Europhiles underlines how the rejection of Turkey does not simply constitute a mode of fostering loyalty to the EU, but is also used to reinforce racist notions of Western superiority.


This blog is based on article, 'When Eurosceptics become Europhiles: far-right opposition to Turkish involvement in the European Union', published via Taylor & Francis Online, 20 May 2019. 

Posted in: Brexit, European politics, Global politics, Political ideologies, Racism and the far right, UK politics


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