This week's big questions: Should Turkey join the EU? Should the UK have a referendum on leaving it?

This week's questions are answered by historian and author Norman Stone


How worried should we be about the straining of US-Russia relations?

I don’t think so. Russia has made enormous strides under Putin; she no longer has to run an empire, and like all ex-imperial powers is richer as a result. There is an educated middle class at last, and Russia’s voice has often been the sane one in international affairs: without it, we would have another Iraq in Syria and probably Lebanon. There are bound to be collisions of interest between Russia and the US, but they are not the end of the world.

Should there be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU?

We have been promised a referendum and we should have one. Europe unquestionably does good things, such as competition policy, but the centralisation now promised for the eurozone does not fit British practice, and the political arrangements are near farcical. If a big No vote resulted, it could be good for Europe, in the sense that its well-known bullying, corruption and incompetence could be ended by the threat of British departure.

Should Turkey join the EU?

If Europe were just what it was supposed to be when the Turks became associated, in 1963, Turkish membership of course makes sense. It is a large and growing market, the only preponderantly young population in Europe, many of them well trained. The effort to match conditions for joining Europe has also been beneficial in prising open sleepy monopolies and making the country more open to foreign investment. Prosperity has obviously been increasing. But with the ever-closer union Europe that we now have, the Turks are simply opening themselves to ridiculous rebuff, being told that they have to wait because of some pimple like Greek Cyprus.

The real problem has been the absurd EU visa regime, in which professional-class Turks are humiliated, filling in huge forms for a three-day visit, as if they were drug smugglers, etc. The Americans give a 10-year visa in a day. I was absurdly told “we have to treat everyone the same”. Why on earth? Maybe the answer is that if the Turks really want EU membership, they can take ours.

Should the West intervene in Syria?

The Syrian business is a mess, and surely the examples of Iraq and Afghanistan should have told us (and the Turkish government) just not to get involved. Unlike the other two, Syria is well supported by the Russians, who have solid interests, and the Assad government, whatever its sins, is based on secular principles. Alawite girls used to go round the strict Muslim parts just ripping the wretched black face-cloths-with-eye-slits from the put-upon women. If Syria (and Lebanon, again) explodes, the whole peace settlement of 1920 (A Peace to End All Peace, in the title of David Fromkin’s famous book) is reopened, which might include the matter of Israel. A disaster, and the West must back off.

Is an independent Scotland either viable or desirable?

I remember the words of a Polish count, speaking to the German ambassador in Vienna in 1918: “If Poland could become independent again, I’d give half of my worldly goods. With the other half, I’d emigrate.” Scottish independence is a grotesque idea, not worth discussing. If it does come about, there will be a stampede among Scots for English passports – most of us anyway have close family there – and, in my case, for a Turkish one. Norman Tebbitt had the right answer to that (as so often) when he said the union matters much more, even if the price is a Labour government from time to time.

Does the record of the Coalition show it to be a progressive innovation in UK politics?

I think the Liberals (I always think of them as such) are really more comfortable with a Labour alliance, whereas in present circumstances their role is to save David Cameron from his own supporters. The Coalition has not done too badly, given the circumstances, but it is not a long-term answer.

Is gay marriage a worthy cause for David Cameron to champion against the wishes of much of his party?

Marriage, with children, obviously deserves every support the state can give, and we haven’t needed the elaborate sociological researches of the past generation to show that children thrive if brought up in such circumstances. I can see that people involved in a civil partnership should be able to pass on property, etc, without death duties, but let us not confuse that with marriage.

Does the British press require statutory regulation?

I wondered about this, but have been swayed on the subject by Dominic Lawson (and others). If the present law were properly operated, and if libel actions could be made much cheaper, statutory intervention would not be necessary.

Norman Stone is professor of international relations at Bilkent University, Ankara. He is a former Oxford professor of modern history and advised Margaret Thatcher on foreign affairs during her premiership. His latest book, World War Two: A Short History will be published next month.

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