Breaking point and Turkey

Immigration generally was integral to both the official Vote Leave campaign and the unofficial campaign. It had been a salient issue for several years and covered widely in the media. After the accession of Central and East European states to the EU in 2004, many UK voters had become increasingly concerned about migration (Heath and Tilley 2005; McLaren and Johnson 2007). The 2015 refugee crisis, which had seen those fleeing Syria end up in different European countries, had seen an intensified anti-immigration narrative in the British press (Berry et al. 2016; Chouliaraki et al. 2017) and amongst political figures. This was seen even amongst Remainers in the referendum debate, complicating things for those who then tried to argue in favour of the EU. For example, Cameron had repeatedly pledged to bring down immigration figures and had referred to a ‘a swarm of people coming across the Mediterranean, seeking a better life, wanting to come to Britain’, phraseology' he was condemned for (Taylor et al. 2015).

By the time of the 2016 referendum, immigration was ranked as the most important issue in the country — the highest level since 1999 and rising ten percentage points between May 2016 and June 2016 (Ipsos Mori 2016). Goodwin and Milazzo (2017) found that public support for leaving the EU was significantly stronger in areas where there had been high rates of ethnic demographic change before the referendum. The researchers also found that Remainers were also more likely to switch to Leave if they experienced rising levels of immigration. As a result, the decision of the Leave campaigns to focus on immigration issues, particularly towards the end of the campaign, was effective.

The oft-repeated mantra ‘take back control’ by Leavers was a deliberately ambiguous phrase (Gietel-Basten 2016, 673) and thus often a thinly veiled way of referencing immigration (Browning 2019). The number of articles referencing immigration reflected this, rising fourfold per week from mid-April until the referendum day (Moore and Ramsay 2017, 29). But this was a message that resonated. During the election campaign, the most unsubtle visualisation of this was UKIP’s ‘Breaking Point’poster.

The poster, unveiled by UKIP’s leader Nigel Farage the week before the referendum, was widely condemned. It portrayed a long queue of (mostly) non-white men and the headline ‘Breaking Point: The EU has failed us all’. It emerged that the picture was of Syrian migrants at the Croatian/Slovenian border — although Britain’s refusal to sign the Schengen Agreement meant that such migrants would find it nearly impossible to enter the UK. But while the picture might have been factually inaccurate, the framing was clear. As Morrison (2016) suggests:

This was UKIP’s crystallisation of the fabled Cameron ‘swarm’. Its malice lay in the fact that it simultaneously suggested a threefold untruth: that the inward migration encouraged by our EU membership is a non-white phenomenon; that it principally involves young, able-bodied males who can only be coming to steal our jobs and livelihoods; and that it is a Trojan horse for importing Islamist (ergo ‘Middle Easternlooking’) terrorists.

(Morrison 2016, 66)

The architects of Vote Leave distanced themselves from the poster — with Michael Gove saying that he ‘shuddered’ when he saw it (Simons 2016). It was compared to the aesthetics of 1930s propaganda (Wright 2016) and reported to the police for racial hatred (Stewart and Mason 2016). On the same day as the poster was launched, a man with far-right views fatally stabbed and shot Labour MP Jo Cox, shouting ‘Britain first’ as he attacked her and, when asked to give his name for the record in court, responded ‘death to traitors, freedom for Britain’ (Booth et al. 2016). Farage withdrew the poster after the death of Cox, although he said that it was only unfortunate timing and that it was wrong to link the MP’s assassination to any arguments he or Gove might have made (ITV News 2016).

While the official Vote Leave campaign separated itself from such outputs, their focus also remained on immigration. The main Vote Leave communications via the website were clear: on the page titled Why Vote Leave? it stated that Turkey was joining the EU, along with Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. The populations of each were given, with another big red arrow pointing from the region to the UK (Vote Leave 2016). This was followed by a poster stating that “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU’ (Boffey and Helm 2016). But, although Turkey had begun accession talks in 2005, the pace of progress had been slow and stormy, and Turkeys record on human rights and the increasing authoritarianism of Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government had effectively put paid to any prospect of Turkey joining (Reuters 2019).

Yet in their study of UK media coverage of the referendum, Moore and Ramsay (2017) found that Turkey was most likely to be associated with immigration in the national press. Out of 461 articles that mentioned Turkey, 109 had a negative portrayal of Turkey or its citizens, in terms of criminality or the pressure that would be put on UK public services if Turkey joined the EU. Just 2 articles were positive — about statements Boris Johnson had made about his pride in his Turkish ancestry (2017, 107).

This was not surprising, given the common approach to immigration coverage and not just in the UK. Studies show that news media frequently portray those seeking asylum as an economic and security risk, for example (Caviedes 2015; Esses et al. 2013; KhosraviNik 2010; Parker 2015; Philo et al. 2013). In the UK news media, refugees, asylum seekers, immigrants, and migrants were often framed as ‘dangerous criminals’ and articles suggested ‘that Britain is under attack from migrants, particularly asylum seekers and refugees’ (International Policy Institute 2004, 42). This was aided by a long-standing approach by politicians on both sides of the political spectrum14 to sound tough on immigration and raise issues of pressure on public services, rather than utilise other reports (e.g. Dustman and Frattini 2014, which found a positive contribution from immigrants).

Turkey became a useful conduit to combine EU migration and the refugee crisis in voters’ minds, which allowed Vote Leave ‘to play on the idea of the existential future of Europe . . . ageing, declining and weakening on the global stage . . . surrounded by hotbeds of population growth, poverty and fanaticism’ (Gietel-Basten 2016, 676)

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