German-Turkish Tensions

Severing Ties with Erdogan

Angela Merkel and Recep Tayyip Erdogan 23950924 AP
We need to talk. Source: AP

The mass rally of Turkey’s main opposition party, the CHP, in Istanbul earlier in July was an impressive sight. That day, over a million people clamored for a democratic, constitutional and secular Turkey. Sadly, many opposition lawmakers were not able to take part in it because they had been incarcerated on trumped-up charges. However, this was a clear enough message to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is in the process of transforming Turkey into an Islamic dictatorship at an ever-increasing pace.

Germany should have taken the opportunity of this protest, at the very latest, to give up its cautious stance toward Mr. Erdogan and come out clearly on the side of democratic forces in Turkey. Instead of this, at the very same time, Chancellor Angela Merkel treated Mr. Erdogan with such kid gloves at the G20 summit in Hamburg you might have thought she had pangs of guilt for banning his planned address to our fellow citizens of Turkish heritage in Germany. For some time now German-Turkish relations have been mired in crisis.

A week after the G20 summit, Mr. Erdogan used the first anniversary of the failed coup d’état in his country to respond to the protest march, by dismissing another 7,500 civil servants and declaring he wanted his opponents’ heads “cut off.” He has now sacked 140,000 civil servants, incarcerated 50,000 people for political reasons and closed down 160 critical media outlets. The presidential system and the permanent state of emergency give Mr. Erdogan practically unrestricted power which he also uses toward other countries. He sends the Turkish army to bombard northern Syria, attacking the very Kurdish units which have proved to be the most effective ground troops against the IS terror group. The German army, the Bundeswehr, supplies him with intelligence about the Syrian airspace. At the same time, he jails German journalists for political reasons while he treats German NGOs and companies like terror suspects. German lawmakers have been barred from visiting Bundeswehr soldiers stationed in Turkey multiple times.

The federal government now seems prepared to do more than just wag its finger at Mr. Erdogan.

But only in the last few days following the arrest of the 22nd German citizen by the Turkish authorities – the human rights activist Peter Steudtner – does the federal government now seem prepared to do more than just wag its finger at Mr. Erdogan. Words now might be followed by deeds, after all.

There are two reasons for the cautious approach both the German government and the European Union practiced for far too long with respect to Mr. Erdogan’s policies: the refugee deal and Turkey’s membership of NATO. They both give the Turkish president leverage. This became particularly clear when – in unprecedented fashion – he kowtowed to Russian President Vladimir Putin to repair hugely damaged relations following the shooting-down of a Russian fighter jet over the Turkish-Syrian border in 2015. And since then the NATO member country has progressively expanded its partnership with Russia, while in Eastern Europe NATO troops have moved close to the Russian border. As wrong as I find the latter, the former is hardly in line with NATO strategy.

The military alliance has to ask itself anyway just how flexible it wants its framework of values to be. In none of the wars of recent years and decades in which NATO or its member states were involved, did it fail to draw attention to so-called Western values like democracy, human rights and liberty defended. These wars did not solve any conflicts, or even upheld said Western values – even having the opposite effect than intended – the question should be asked all the more vociferously just how hollow such bold references to values sound, when NATO members themselves are increasingly abandoning them.

It is not just Turkey, but also Poland and Hungary, which are turning away from the rule of law, liberty and democracy. If these states were not members of NATO, but were allied, for example, with Russia or Iran, NATO strategists would long have classified them as rogue states. But the German government neither calls into question the NATO membership of these countries, nor its military cooperation with them. So the mutual defense clause still applies to Turkey, as it does to Germany. Support for a despot who incarcerates German citizens arbitrarily? For that reason alone, Turkey’s NATO membership should be suspended. Then Turkey could no longer bully a member state using the military alliance as a lever. The Cold War is over anyway, and from the point of view of NATO that is why Turkey no longer plays the strategic role it used to vis-à-vis the Soviet Union. So even from the point of view of NATO strategists Turkey’s membership is can be dispensed with.

In 2016 and 2017 Germany exported materiel to Turkey worth €106 million, which, given the situation, is exactly €106 million too much.

The European Union is at least considering opening proceedings against Poland with reference to Article 7 of the EU treaties. It is therefore reacting to the intention of the ruling party to rescind the separation of powers by having the public prosecutor’s office, and above all the courts, tied to the government. But the existing possibilities to exert influence in the case of Turkey have remained unused for far too long. The refugee deal which gave Mr. Erdogan a windfall of billions of euros for preventing Syrian war refugees, among others, from reaching Europe made us dependent on the whims of a despot. There is absolutely no way the refugee question can be solved with Turkey. The refugee issue highlighted the absence of European solidarity, and the European idea of integration was sold out to Turkey. The suspension of EU accession talks Turkey is a step in the right direction, but does nothing to change the fact that to this day, within the framework of the customs union, European money still flows to Turkey unhindered.

This is a source of encouragement for Mr. Erdogan. It enables him to demonstrate his power internally and externally making him appear almost like a colossus, and this can no longer be accepted. It is high time Germany and Europe fought back. But the new policy on Turkey that Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel wants push for cannot be limited to updating travel warnings and reviewing credit agreements and arms deals. Perhaps instead of examining the agreements, they could be revoked? Military cooperation must be terminated. Assessing arms sales is not enough. In 2016 and 2017 Germany exported materiel to Turkey worth €106 million, which, given the situation, is exactly €106 million too much. And German soldiers still stationed in Turkey must be withdrawn immediately and brought back home. No exception can be accepted to the right of members of the Bundestag to visit the Bundeswehr as its parliamentary army.

The German government must finally make it clear in word and deed that a state which departs from the principles of partnership by walking all over human rights, democracy and the rule of law, which also imprisons German citizens – in effect, as hostages – for political reasons, can no longer be a partner. The federal government must formally cut all friendly ties with the Erdogan regime. This way, Germany will to be able to maintain these ties with the Turkish people.


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