Turkey, the EU and Public Opinion

I'm never surprised when data from non-EU countries come back showing low internal public support for EU membership. Too often, opinion leaders are far, far ahead of the electorate in terms of support for EU-accession. According to the recently Transatlantic Trends Survey released by the German Marshall Fund, 40% of Turks think that Turkey's membership in the EU would be a "good thing." Frankly, I'm surprised it's that high.
To voters, EU or NATO membership means very little. They have no idea how joining these international bodies will improve their daily lives. Can you blame them? The EU makes my eyes glaze over and I don't really understand what NATO is supposed to do anymore. Since opinion leaders tend to think the benefits are self-evident, they are often surprised when voters say "no."

Putting aside the questionable assumption that EU membership is really an option for Turkey and that it will happen within the next 25 years, if I were in charge of Turkey's accession campaign, this is what I would do well before the issue ever appears before voters on a ballot:

  • Start conducting research that will establish a baseline and form the foundation of the public education campaign, with no discussion of elections or voting on the issue;
  • Create a pro-accession message that explains to voters in simple terms how their daily lives will be improved by membership: More jobs, a greater variety of affordable goods, regional economic development.
  • To the degree possible, begin organizing a multi-party coalition as well as a coalition of NGOs that support accession. Share the research with them and make sure they stay on message.

From a polling perspective, there are a few principles for running referendum campaigns --whether for NATO or EU -- that proponents need to keep in mind:

  • YES campaigns are always harder to win than NO campaigns. Therefore, proponents need to have more money, more discipline and more organization than opponents. Defeating referenda is relatively easy. Some day, maybe I will post about how I would defeat an EU accession campaign!
  • Generally, a successful YES campaign starts with 60%-70% total support (with at least 50% "hard" support) for the actual, legal wording of the referendum question, as it appears on the ballot. Erosion in support over the course of a campaign is inevitable, so having a buffer is important.
  • A high number of undecideds (29% of Turks are uncertain or ambivalent about whether EU membership is good or bad, for example), is not as good as solid support, but it's better than solid opposition. It's much easier to persuade people who have not made up their minds than to change people's minds. A potential measure for which opposition initially exceeds 40% is substantially more difficult to pass. One of which a majority oppose is doomed to failure.

The best research-driven accession campaign I've ever seen was Poland's in 2003 (not that there aren't others, I just am not familiar with them). Referenda like these don't pass themselves and the Poles spent a lot of time and resources to get 74%. Not only did the question have to pass with 50%+1, Polish election law also require 50% turnout, which compounded the challenge. Dr. Aleks Szczerbiak presented an interesting analysis here.

Should it ever arise, EU accession in Turkey would be a fun campaign to run!