Conciliatory tone

Turkey tries to ease tensions with Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel visits Turkey
A budding friendship? Source: dpa

Germany and Turkey have been through a diplomatic whirlwind. In recent months, numerous diplomatic spats, from Nazi comparisons to the arrests of German citizens in Turkey, have put a strain on their ties.

But the tide could be turning. Government officials in Ankara say President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is determined to significantly improve relations with Germany in the coming months.

A first indication was the release of a prominent German detainee. Last Friday, the German-Turkish journalist Deniz Yücel was freed from prison in Turkey. The correspondent for Die Welt had been detained in Istanbul for over a year on terrorism and propaganda charges.

“I can assure you there are no agreements, trade-offs, or deals in connection with this.”

Sigmar Gabriel, German Foreign Minister

Mr. Yücel’s release is certainly a step in the right direction, but there is still a “long way to go” in normalizing relations with Turkey, warned German lawmaker Volker Kauder. There are still five other German citizens held in Turkish prisons on legally dubious charges. And on the same day as Mr. Yücel’s release, six Turkish citizens were sentenced to life in prison.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel denies that Germany and Turkey struck a political deal to free Mr. Yücel. “I can assure you there are no agreements, trade-offs, or deals in connection with this,” he said. Nonetheless, Ankara now hopes for stronger defense cooperation with Germany to build 1,000 Altay tanks. Just last month, Berlin delayed the upgrading of Turkey’s German-made Leopard tanks because of Turkey’s military operations against Kurds in northwestern Syria.

Tensions remain. During the Munich Security Conference, the German politician Cem Özdemir was put under police protection after a tense encounter with the Turkish delegation. Mr. Özdemir, who is of Turkish descent, has been a vocal critic of the Turkish government. He said Turkish security had called him a “terrorist”.

Deniz Y¸cel
Was Mr. Yücel used as a bargaining chip? Source: dpa

The chill between Germany and Turkey began following the failed coup in July 2016, which the Turkish government alleges was orchestrated by the US-based cleric Fethullah Gülen. Mr. Erdogan declared a state of emergency and purged thousands of political opponents, journalists, and academics. Since then, more than 50,000 people have been jailed and more than 150,000 suspended from their jobs.

The German government has repeatedly criticized Turkey’s post-coup crackdown on dissent. Ankara, meanwhile, has complained about Berlin’s refusal to hand over Turkish asylum seekers it says were involved in the attempted coup. Last summer, the relationship between the NATO allies reached a nadir when a German human rights activist was arrested in Turkey on terrorism charges, which led Germany to issue a travel warning for Turkey. The activist was later released.

This gave Ankara pause. Germany, home to three million people with Turkish roots, is Turkey’s biggest trade partner. Yearly trade between the two countries stands at ‎€37 billion. Germans also make up the largest group of visitors to Turkey, accounting for 15 percent of all tourists in 2016.

Turkey is now pulling out all the stops to woo German politicians, industry representatives, and journalists.“I hope we may leave troubled issues behind and open a new page,” Prime Minister Binali Yildirim told the Turkish newspaper Hürriyet.

And there are signs of budding friendships. The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlüt Cavusoglu invited his German counterpart Mr. Gabriel to Antalya. Shortly after he met the German Foreign Minister in his hometown of Goslar for a chat over Turkish tea. Since then, Mr. Cavusoglu called Mr. Gabriel his “dearest friend” – and Germany Turkey’s “closest alliance partner”.

Turkey is arguably dependent on Germany’s good graces. The country hopes to join the European Union, a move that Germany opposes. Ankara has also requested to deepen its partial customs union with the European Union to include services and agriculture. If this upgrade takes effect, economic output could rise by 2 percent, economists predict. This would also benefit many German companies – and Mr. Erdogan. The president needs solid economic data for the 2019 election year, in which he wants to consolidate his power.

Stephanie Ott is a writer and editor for Handelsblatt Global in New York, Philipp Mattheis is a writer for Wirtschaftswoche, a sister publication of Handelsblatt. To contact the authors: s.ott@extern.handelsblatt.com and philipp.mattheis@wiwo.de.

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