Once again, the volume has been turned up in German-Turkish relations. The latest disagreement is all too familiar at this point: Turkey has again provoked Germany, this time putting Turkish-German author Dogan Akhanli on Interpol’s wanted list. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has let Turkish-German voters know who they shouldn’t vote for in Germany’s upcoming elections. German politicians across the spectrum have loudly condemned Mr. Erdogan. Both sides will continue to reprimand and belittle the other for a couple of days before things quiet down – and it starts all over again.
No question: Mr. Erdogan started this game and compelled Berlin to respond. Mighty Germany, the country with the most say in Europe, is the only appropriate sparring partner from the perspective of the status-conscious Turkish president. German Chancellor Angela Merkel long hesitated to join Mr. Erdogan’s game – if only to preserve the all-important refugee agreement and her country’s vital economic and security ties with Turkey. Other politicians, even from Ms. Merkel’s own party, have seized opportunities to draw sharp boundaries against Turkey, a country they don’t want to see join the European Union. In Germany, Turkish talk has been loud in the echo chamber that is September 25’s federal election.
In reality, his politics have massively weakened the country – his authoritarian behavior has split Turkish society, kept tourists away and scared off investors.
Both sides are purposefully rubbing each other the wrong way to secure political points domestically. For that, Mr. Erdogan needs to portray Germany as the enemy much more so than vice versa. Those who had hoped that Turkey’s referendum in April would result in Mr. Erdogan losing interest in German politics have surely been disappointed.
Mr. Erdogan is looking for more support. He needs an external opponent to stoke national sentiments and to distract Turkish citizens from the country’s mounting economic problems. Only he as the strongman at the top can defend national pride against arrogant Europeans. In reality, his politics have massively weakened the country – his authoritarian behavior has split Turkish society, kept tourists away and scared off investors.
How should such a provocateur be dealt with? It’s not easy to answer, because the means to influence people in Turkey are not there. With upwards of three million German citizens of Turkish decent, drastic steps – like cutting off relations – just aren’t possible. What’s more, Turkey serves as a gateway to the Middle East for the German and European economies, is a full NATO member and an important partner in a successful refugee policy.
The goal should rather be to find the right balance between harmonization and demarcation. The president and the Turkish government need to be made aware of the consequences of their actions – especially in situations where provocations are brazen and violations of democratic principles are blatant. Those areas where cooperation with Turkey still makes sense, such as student and cultural exchange, should be maintained and even built upon.
German politicians should abstain from adding fuel to the fire. Sanctions against Mr. Erdogan’s family might be met with applause back home, but sanctions similar to those against Russia would simply go too far. In contrast to Russian President Vladimir Putin, after all, Mr. Erdogan didn’t annex part of a neighboring country.
The federal government should, whenever possible, seek to act together with its EU partners. Mr. Erdogan’s attacks haven been strongly focused on Germany. His policies, however, take aim at shared European values. And most of the potentially effective political instruments against him – ranging from the EU membership process to visa exemptions and the customs union – rest with Brussels, not with Berlin.
Europe’s governments are mostly in agreement when it comes to dealing with Turkey. Accession negotiations are on ice, but not yet terminated from the EU’s side; freedom of movement for Turkish citizens won’t be granted as long as Ankara treats any and all opposition members as terrorists; and discussions about closer trade relations will only commence if Mr. Erdogan displays an ability and desire to act as a true partner.
Even taken together, these measures will hardly move Mr. Erdogan to seek a closer relationship with the EU. But the bloc’s economic leverage is significant: Turkey is dependent on increasing trade, and discussions on terminating a customs union with the EU and the loss of investors would bring enormous pain. As of now, time is on the EU’s side, not Mr. Erdogan’s.
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