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The Turkey Referendum and its reflection on European Turks

By Bill Pemberton-Bennetts | Our once open gateway to the Middle East is very steadily morphing into a horror show of Fascism, offering a thin veil of Islamic fundamentalism. Last week Turks voted for crucial changes to their secular constitution, in a referendum campaign, which has provided some of the most fascinating political stories of our time. President Recep Erdogan is on the move to create an Islamic autocracy, in a country that once defied claims that Islam is compatible with democratic and liberal values.

The most prominent changes to the Constitution were that of the role of the President who now becomes the head of the executive and State, but can also be a member of a political party, removing any formal idea at all that Erdogan is party neutral. The reforms formally give Parliament the power to check Erdogan, but his tight grip on Parliament means that any check and balance is far from being used in Erdogan’s Turkey.

The reason why this referendum’s reforms are so distasteful is because they hand over a large amount of power to President Erdogan, whilst at the same time lacking any form of accountability. The most authoritarian changes are Erdogan now becoming head of state and Executive, which centralises political power in the hands of Erdogan. Neither the Judiciary nor Legislature are willing to stop him as they are under his control. It isn’t a step into a full authoritarian dictatorship, but it certainly looks like a step towards it.

The final result of the referendum providing these key constitutional changes was 51.4% in favour; the Conservative right in Turkey and Turks abroad aided the result. Of Turkish people living abroad, 73% in Austria voted in favour, 75% in Belgium, 60% in Denmark, 65% in France, 63% in Germany and finally 71% in the Netherlands voted in favour. Elsewhere in the United Kingdom, United States and Switzerland, the vote was overwhelmingly “No”.

What this shows is that whilst Turks live alongside us and appear to engage in our society, embracing democratic and liberal values is far from possible in this national group. In 2008, Erdogan (then Prime Minister) spoke to 20,000 Turkish-Germans in Cologne and explicitly stated that assimilation in German society is an equivalent to a crime against humanity.

To understand the overwhelming support amongst Turks in Europe, one must understand the history of Turkish integration. The first influx of Turkish workers began in the early 1970s, when the 1971 German guest worker program was introduced. This program asked for Turkish workers to come into Germany and provide labour for German businesses for a short period of time, with old workers being replaced by new ones every few years. This original plan of a short stay failed as these workers were instead starting lives in Europe, rather than going back to Turkey once their work had been done. The German government had to account for this and extend work visas as it saw a large amount of Turkish children being enrolled in schools. The story is very similar in the Netherlands and Austria, where Turkish workers came and started families. 60% (in Germany) of the work being done by Turks was low skilled, being done by those with little education and came from Conservative backgrounds.

Turkish people in Germany were asked if they felt unwanted in the country, 45% responded yes, but 70% retained that coming to Germany was the right decision.

The reason why the large proportion of Turkish workers being unskilled and feel unwanted in Germany is relevant, is that it shows the retained attachment to Turkey. Not that one shouldn’t feel attachment to the country they or their parents have come from, but Turkish residents in Continental European nations clearly have an aggrandised melancholy for their home country caused by the isolation in European society.

As the conditions for Turks in other Continental Europe are exactly the same, with the large influx of low-skilled Conservative workers in the 1970s, Continental Europe has a big problem with assimilation of these groups. One may ask however why this large Conservative presence is not seen in the United Kingdom, United States and Switzerland. The first reason is the significantly larger populations of Turkish people in Germany, France and the Netherlands, being 2.8m, 900,000 and 450,000 respectively. Whilst the populations in the UK and Switzerland are still high, the countries with higher no votes have not seen these kind of numbers. Population is relevant due to the correlation with the large influx of manual labour and Conservative values. Secondly, the location of which Turkish immigrants came from is much different, 3/5ths of British Turks come from Cyprus (who voted 55% no) and 1/5th from mainland Turkey, and a large proportion of Swiss Turks are Kurds who vehemently oppose the current administration for its crackdowns on their political activities. Moreover, in the United States, the largest inflows of Turks during the 1960s and 70s was that of highly educated secular workers. What this shows is that a separate group of Turkish people were arriving in these countries, either Turks in Cyprus or Turks that would oppose any reform of this sort, due to ingrained opposition of their ethnic groups or a higher education rate amongst this populace, rather than the low skilled labour that Continental Europe asked for.  

The primary problem for Continental Turks is their level of education and acceptance within their host country. The more a population feels wanted, the higher chance they will assimilate and acculturate some of their values. However, it is not only acceptance and the welcoming of the host country that leads to a lack of assimilation. Large support for the Yes vote can be found according to where the Turks are coming from, the United Kingdom and Switzerland have received Turks from less hard-line Cypriot backgrounds and Kurdish backgrounds, indicating that location and background influences attitudes. Lastly, education levels highly affect the chance of a more Conservative outlook, where there is a lack of education in low skilled labour, there is a higher chance of a Yes vote, the United States is a case in point where a high level of education in Turks lead to a more secular and liberal outlook.

To sum up, Turkey’s recent referendum offered a diagnosis of Turkish culture within Continental Europe. It shed light on the lack of integration in society, as Germans and Turks both seem unwilling to accept each other fully. One can empathise with a national group who feel so very isolated in a society who shuns them; they now have a President who rejects secularisation in favour of a political system where they can feel at home and their values are protected.

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