Boris Johnson has tried to distance himself from controversial claims made by the Vote Leave campaign about Turkey’s attempts to join the EU.
The former foreign secretary was making a speech on Brexit at JCB’s headquarters in Staffordshire when Channel 4 News’s Michael Crick challenged him on his views on immigration.
Crick referred to campaign material put out by Vote Leave ahead of the 2016 referendum which “suggested 80 million Turks would come to this country if we stayed in the EU, which was absurd then and is absurd now”.
Mr Johnson, who was a key figurehead in the Vote Leave campaign, said: “Actually, I didn’t say anything about Turkey in the referendum… I didn’t say a thing about Turkey.”
He added: “Since I made no remarks, I can’t defend them… I didn’t make any remarks about Turkey.”
We’ve checked the record and we don’t think that’s true. There are several examples of Mr Johnson discussing Turkey during the referendum campaign.
Vote Leave’s Turkey strategy
Boris Johnson was on the campaign committee of Vote Leave.
In the early stages of the campaign, the group generally avoided the topic of immigration. But in May 2016, weeks before the referendum, Vote Leave began to warn about the supposed dangers of Turkey joining the EU.
One poster featured an British passport depicted as an open door with a trail of footprints going through it, alongside the slogan “Turkey (population 76 million) is joining the EU. Vote Leave, take back control.”
Online ads showed arrows leading from Turkey to Britain stressing the size of Turkey’s population, its low average wage and its border with Iraq.
(These and other Facebook ads run by the campaign were published by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport committee last year.)
Vote Leave campaigners gave a string of interviews warning that Britain’s population could surge and we would be at greater risk of crime if Turkey joined the EU, which would give its citizens the right to live and work in the UK under freedom of movement rules.
Many commentators pointed out that Turkey’s route to EU accession was far from certain, unlikely to happen soon and could be vetoed by Britain or any other member state.
It’s fair to say that fellow Vote Leave faces Michael Gove and Penny Mordaunt did most of the heavy lifting in communicating this line of the campaign.
But it’s not true to say that Mr Johnson “didn’t say anything” about Turkey.
The “mad” comments
As early as April 17, 2016, Mr Johnson was quoted by newspapers as saying: “I am very pro-Turkish but what I certainly can’t imagine is a situation in which 77 million of my fellow Turks and those of Turkish origin can come here without any checks at all.
“That is mad – that won’t work.”
Presumably the reference to “my fellow Turks” was an allusion to Mr Johnson’s family history. His paternal great-grandfather was the prominent Ottoman Turkish journalist and politician Ali Kemal.
The words “I am very pro-Turkish” could be a reference to the fact that years before the EU referendum, Mr Johnson had in fact publicly supported EU membership for Turkey.
‘Turkey’s hand on the tap’
On the same day the remarks were printed, Mr Johnson’s column appeared in the Telegraph, on the subject of the migrant and refugee crisis then afflicting eastern and southern Europe, and Turkey’s alleged influence on the flow of migration.
He wrote: “It is Turkey’s hand on the tap. Erdogan, if he chooses, can allow the trickle to turn back into a flood — with devastating consequences not just for Merkel, but for the whole project of EU integration. “
He added: “There is one event in the next few weeks that could remind the British people of at least one salient point in this debate — that this country has lost control of its frontiers — and that is another migration crisis on the borders of the EU, and within the EU itself.”
This column and the “mad” comments appeared several weeks before Vote Leave launched the Turkey strand of its campaign.
It’s not clear what personal involvement Mr Johnson he had – if any – in shaping the Turkey strategy.
But Vote Leave campaign director Dominic Cummings wrote after the referendum: “If Boris, Gove, and Gisela had not supported us and picked up the baseball bat marked ‘Turkey/NHS/£350 million’ with five weeks to go, then 650,000 votes might have been lost.”
‘A flat lie’
On June 5, 2016, the BBC’s Andrew Marr interviewed Mr Johnson and challenged him on Vote Leave’s sudden focus on immigration in general and Turkish accession to the EU in particular.
Mr Johnson was shown a Vote Leave poster that claimed “you can’t trust David Cameron on immigration”.
Challenged to “disavow” the campaign material, Mr Johnson said: “That’s the first time I’ve seen it… I would put it in my own language.”
Marr also showed Mr Johnson Vote Leave material on Turkey, saying: “Turkey is joining the EU is not true, is it?” He added: “That is a flat lie.”
Mr Johnson replied: “It is the government’s policy that Turkey should join the EU.”
The letter to David Cameron
Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and fellow Vote Leave campaigner Gisela Stuart signed a joint letter to the then-Prime Minister David Cameron on June 16, 2016, calling for him to guarantee that the UK would veto Turkish accession to the EU.
The letter stated: “If the Government cannot give this guarantee, the public will draw the reasonable conclusion that the only way to avoid having common borders with Turkey is to Vote Leave and take back control on 23 June.”