German-Turkish Relations

Burn Bridges at Your Own Risk

POLITIK – Erdogan Demonstration in Koeln
Be careful what you wish for. Source: Picture Alliance

For most foreign observers of Germany’s elections on September 24 – indeed, for most Germans – little seems at stake. Chancellor Angela Merkel appears all but assured to win a fourth term in office; the uncertainty is merely about who her coalition partners will be. German policy – on the economy, the euro zone and much else – is unlikely to change much. But there is one big exception: Turkey.

“When I’m chancellor I will end [Turkey’s] membership negotiations with the EU,” said the SPD’s top candidate, Martin Schulz, in a televised debate with Angela Merkel on 2 September. Mr. Schulz’s declaration came as a surprise; he had for years supported Turkey’s ambitions to join the European Union. But now, he said, red lines have been crossed. Ms. Merkel was less categorical, pointing out that only the EU can end the negotiations. Still, she agreed that the accession talks should be ended. Germany’s two biggest parties thus appear to be in agreement that Germany should strike a tougher tone toward Turkey.

This is why these Bundestag elections matter greatly to Turkey. As late as this summer, all of Germany’s mainstream parties took a lenient stance towards Turkey, even though the rhetoric of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan toward Germany has over the past couple of years become increasingly belligerent. In the spring of 2016, Mr. Erdoğan sued a German satirist – forcing Ms. Merkel to take the Turkish president’s side. When the Bundestag last year voted to recognize Turkey’s mass killings of Armenians during World War I as genocide, Mr. Erdoğan withdrew Turkey’s ambassador to Germany and said German politicians of Turkish background should submit blood tests to prove their Turkish ethnicity. Merkel saw no choice but to declare the resolution not legally binding.

The German government has steadfastly supported Turkey’s EU membership ambitions in principle.

Then Turkey refused to permit German parliamentarians to visit Germany army troops stationed at the Incirlik base (which is used by NATO for its air missions in Syria). When Turkey later banned a second visit by German parliamentarians, the Bundestag voted to move its Incirlik-based troops to Jordan. In the run-up to Turkey’s referendum on a new constitution in April 2017, Germany banned several campaign appearances by Turkish politicians in Germany, prompting Mr. Erdoğan to accuse Germany of “Nazi methods”.

Still, Germany’s parties maintained hope in cooperation. And even though the odds are bad that Turkey will become an EU member in the foreseeable future, the German government has steadfastly supported those membership ambitions in principle. With 1.5 million Turkish citizens living in Germany, and perhaps as many again who are German citizens with a Turkish background, as well as a significant amount of trade, the two countries have close links.

Only the far-right Alternative for Germany, or AfD, demanded an end to Turkey’s long-standing membership negotiations with the EU. Many Turks, meanwhile, have long been convinced that the EU isn’t serious about Turkish membership simply because of Turkey’s majority-Muslim population. The fact that Turkey has not yet been granted visa-free travel for its citizens, while worse-performing economies such as Georgia and Ukraine have, confirms such sentiments.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Angela Merkel
Can you hear that? It's the sound of a relationship souring. Source: AP.

The arrests of numerous German citizens this year — including newspaper correspondent Deniz Yücel, who was arrested on terrorism charges in February — have now prompted a U-turn in Berlin. No country can force Ankara to behave in a certain manner. But EU member states can demand an end to Turkey’s accession talks. This summer Christian Lindner, leader of the pro-business Free Democrats, did just that. The Greens then proposed freezing Turkey’s accession talks as long as Mr. Erdoğan is in power. And yet Ms. Merkel’s government still kept the door open.

That’s what changed during the TV debate between Martin Schulz and Angela Merkel. When the new German government takes office, Turkey will thus have lost its most important supporter in the matter of EU accession talks.

Though Germany exported €22 billion ($26.4 billion) worth of goods to Turkey last year, Turkey is only Germany’s 15th-largest export market. While an end to EU accession talks wouldn’t affect current trade, the conventional wisdom had been that German companies export so much to Turkey that Berlin would be reluctant to start a fight with Ankara. Unfortunately for Mr. Erdoğan, Germany is more important to him than he will be to the German government.

Angela Merkel is the world’s third most powerful person, according to Forbes’s ranking (only Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump rank higher). And she has plenty of other problems to attend to: North Korea, a potential new Greek bailout, Donald Trump, the migrant crisis. Any new coalition led by Ms. Merkel will have its own controversies and tensions: Should Germany spend 2 percent of GDP on defense? Should the federal government play a larger role in school education? Should Germans be weaned off diesel cars? To most German voters, these issues are rather more important than relations with Mr. Erdoğan. The Turkish president would be wise to keep that in mind.


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