Relations between Germany and Turkey have been deteriorating for years, owing largely to the provocations of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president who fancies himself a neo-Ottoman sultan. Moreover, these tensions got worse just as Turkey became geopolitically crucial for Germany during the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016. Recently, however, there have been signs of a thaw. What is one to make of this new rapprochement?
Mr. Erdogan likes to throw his weight around in Germany, the home of three million Turks and Turkish Germans. In 2008 he told an audience of 20,000 supporters in Cologne that assimilation was “a crime against humanity”. A year ago he called on the Turkish diaspora in Europe not just to have three children but five.
He stepped up his tone before Turkey held a referendum on constitutional powers last April, when Mr. Erdogan was refused permission to address Turkish voters at a rally in Germany. In return, he accused Germany of “Nazi practices” and warned: “If Europe continues this way, no European in any part of the world can walk safely on the streets.” One consequence has been a slump in European tourism to Turkey.
Relations have been in a deep freeze ever since the failed coup in July 2016 and the declaration of a state of emergency, which has made it possible for Mr. Erdogan until now to rule by decree. The Turkish authorities have dismissed 150,000 from their jobs, detained over 130,000 and arrested 65,000 on suspicion of being members of the Gülen movement, which is accused of orchestrating the coup. Caught up in the dragnet are a number of German citizens of Turkish origin, notably journalists Deniz Yücel and Mesale Tolu, as well as the human rights activist Peter Steudtner.
One German-Turkish joint venture is helping Turkey to construct its own battle tank.
As Nate Schenkkan from Freedom House, a US pro-democracy watchdog, has pointed out, Turkey has thus adopted hostage-taking as an instrument of foreign policy, with Germany being a target. Mr. Erdogan is reported to have offered to exchange the imprisoned Mr. Yücel for two Turkish generals who have fled to Germany. He has also offered the US Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who has been in a Turkish jail since October 2016, in return for Fethullah Gülen, the leader of the Gülen movement who lives in Pennsylvania. It is believed that Turkey will do the same with two Greek soldiers it has seized, demanding in return eight Turkish officers who have sought asylum in Greece.
Germany’s response has been to reconsider economic aid and export credit guarantees, to advise German tourists against travel to Turkey, and to put weapons deliveries to Turkey on hold. Between 2006 and 2011 Germany had delivered 354 Leopard 2 tanks to Turkey (although, as the battle for al-Bab in Syria demonstrated, these need an upgrade).
Meanwhile, behind the scenes there was intense diplomatic traffic to secure the release of the ten German citizens that had been held. In September last year former chancellor Gerhard Schröder met with Mr. Erdogan in Ankara to secure Mr. Steudtner’s release. In February, Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel met twice with the Turkish president concerning Mr. Yücel. Ms. Tolu was released in December but not allowed to leave Turkey, pending trial. On February 16 Mr. Yücel was released, leaving four German citizens still imprisoned on political grounds.
Early in January, Mr. Gabriel also met with his Turkish counterpart Mevlut Cavusoglu in Germany and shortly after instructed his office to “look favourably” at Turkey’s request for a tank upgrade. While in prison, Mr. Yücel was vigorously opposed to “a dirty deal” to secure his release. But Turkey’s attack on the Kurdish enclave of Afrin in Syria on January 20 forced Chancellor Angela Merkel and Mr. Gabriel to postpone the decision for an upgrade until the new coalition government is in place.
Nevertheless, there is every sign that Germany is intent on going back to business as usual as soon as possible. One German-Turkish joint venture, for instance, is helping Turkey to construct its own battle tank, the Altay. The German partner, Rheinmetall, will produce the first 100-200 tanks of the 1,000 planned. The weekly magazine Stern also claims that Rheinmetall and Turkish vehicle maker BMC signed an agreement on January 9 to upgrade the Leopard tanks. Furthermore, Turkey’s Daily Sabah newspaper reports that from December 18 until January 24 this year, Germany has issued 31 permits to supply military armaments to Turkey.
Post-war Germany has long subscribed to a mercantile foreign policy. It has left the big geopolitical problems to its allies, while trading with countries that violate international norms. The bilateral relationship with Turkey now appears to show the limits of that approach. By all means, Germany should hope for easier contacts with Turkey. But it must not sell its soul for a good deal.