Merkel Debate

The Door Slams Shut on Turkey's Cherished Dream

Leaving Erdogan in her wake: Chancellor Angela Merkel. Picture Source: Reuters

For nearly a century, Turkey has been knocking at Europe’s door hoping to gain admittance to what it considered the club of modern, western nations. “Europe has been an object of desire as well as a source of frustration for Turkish national identity in a long and strained history,” Meltem Ahiska, a sociologist at Bogazici University in Istanbul, once wrote in a paper entitled “Orientalism.”

After World War II, Turkey was one of the first nations to join the Council of Europe in 1949. It sided with the West in the Cold War against the Soviets, and was an early member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Turkey joined a customs union with European countries and began difficult negotiations to become a full member of the European Union in 1999.

After 18 years of fitful starts and painful stops, that door appeared to have slammed shut with finality on Sunday.

“The fact that Turkey should not become a member of the EU is also clear.”

Angela Merkel, German Chancellor

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in a television debate with her Social Democratic opponent Martin Schulz, said flatly “the fact that Turkey should not become a member of the EU is also clear.” She said she would speak to other EU heads of government next month “to see if we can reach a joint position on this so we can end these accession talks.” Her pledge came after much prodding from Mr. Schulz, who said he would immediately make ending the membership talks official policy if he became chancellor.

There was an anguished cry in response from Ankara. Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, accused Ms. Merkel of indulging in populism. “Germany and Europe’s attacks on Turkey/Erdogan, by ignoring essential and urgent problems, are reflections of the narrowing of their horizons,” Mr. Kalin said.

Germany’s government dialed back again those comments on Monday – but only slightly. There would be no official change in German policy before the September 24 elections, Ms. Merkel’s spokesperson Steffen Seibert said. However, the discussion with EU leaders that Ms. Merkel suggested could come as early as October, he conceded.

In truth, the negotiations never advanced very far, with the Europeans reluctant to grant citizenship to 80 million Turks, most of them Muslim, who would be able to move freely throughout the 28-nation union.

“What is going on now in Turkey is a kind of wave of cleansing.”

Martin Schulz, SPD Party Leader

But the opposition to Mr. Erdogan has been steadily growing since a failed coup in July 2016 provoked a violent backlash in which thousands of civil servants were dismissed from their jobs and many others were imprisoned. Germany has been particularly incensed at the detention of 19 German citizens, including workers for the human rights group Amnesty International and several reporters of ethnic Turkish origin but who are now German citizens.

Mr. Erdogan was deeply angered last April when Germany refused to allow Turkish politicians to campaign in Germany for passage of a constitutional amendment granting his expanded powers. Germany is home to three million Turkish immigrants, many of whom have dual nationality and could have voted in the Turkish referendum.

The situation has become so tense that Sigmar Gabriel, the German foreign minister, who like Mr. Schulz is from the SDP, has warned Germans against travelling to Turkey, a major summer holiday destination. German companies have also been warned about potential dangers to businessmen in Turkey in an apparent effort to ratchet up pressure on Mr. Erdogan using all-important trade with Europe as a lever.

“What is going on now in Turkey is a kind of wave of cleansing,” Mr. Schulz declared on Monday.

Europeans are waiting for Turkey’s more formal response a bit nervously, in part because it was an aid agreement with Ankara that ended the mass movement of refugees into southern European, ending a months-long international crisis. For all their bluster about the EU membership negotiations, that was one agreement that both Ms. Merkel and Mr. Schulz said they were not prepared to end.

If Mr. Erdogan decided to open the floodgates again of his own accord, it could prove damaging to European solidarity behind Ms. Merkel.

Ruth Berschens, Gerd Höhler and Klaus Stratmann of Handelsblatt contributed to this story. Charles Wallace adapted this story for Handelsblatt Global. To contact the authors:

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