Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s state visit to Berlin at the end of September 2018 sparked speculations about a possible thaw in Turkish-German relations which had experienced serious tensions in the last two years. The meeting came as Erdogan’s first high-level visit to a democratically ruled European country after his re-election as president on 24 June 2018 and the concurrent implementation of an executive presidential system of government. Erdogan himself referred to the new government system as one of “Turkish style”, fuelling suspicions about its authoritarian character. In fact, the Council of Europe’s law experts, the Venice Commission, already in March 2017 warned Ankara that “by removing necessary checks and balances, the changes would not follow the model of a democratic presidential system based on the separation of powers, and instead would risk degeneration” into authoritarian rule. In line with this, the European Parliament in July 2017 called on the European Commission and the Member States “to formally suspend the accession negotiations with Turkey without delay if the constitutional reform package is implemented unchanged.”
Nowhere else in Europe has the political community and public opinion displayed stronger disapproval of Turkey’s turn to authoritarianism than in Germany. Already in the run-up to the constitutional referendum of April 2017 which adopted the new system, all political parties opposed the Turkish government’s initiatives to rally support for the draft amongst Turkish citizens in the country. But the relations had deteriorated even prior to that. In April 2016, German Bundestag recognized the massacres committed by the Young Turk regime against the Armenian population of the late Ottoman Empire as genocide. The move triggered a downward spiral in the bi-lateral relations. German authorities started criminal investigations against Muslim clerics on the payroll of the Turkish state on grounds of espionage. The German government suggested the European Commission review Turkey’s fulfilment of the political criteria of Copenhagen. It openly opposed Turkey’s quest to renegotiate its Customs Union with the EU and issued travel warnings for German citizens. In Summer 2017, former German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel even announced a stricter handling of government guarantees for German companies to discourage them from investing in Turkey.
In opinion polls conducted by Infratest dimap (DeutschlandtTrend) in 2018, around 90 percent of Germans – an impressive number – expressed their lack of trust in Turkey. What then were the reasons behind Berlin’s willingness to make a U-turn in September 2018 and bring out the red carpet for the Turkish president despite a still very negative public opinion? The bottom line is that the power balance between Turkey and the EU had altered dramatically. Due to the factual stop of Turkey’s membership process, but also because Turkey’s policies bear significant security risks for the EU as a whole and Germany in particular, Turkey has changed from a country subject to European policies of economic stabilisation and political transformation into a geopolitical player on an almost equal footing with the EU and its most powerful Member States. Berlin realised that its principal policy towards Ankara had brought a very limited success. Initially, Germany together with the European partners criticized strongly Turkey’s dramatic setback in terms of rule of law, human rights and other democratic standards, but Berlin ended lobbying alone for the release of German citizens from Turkish jails. Under Turkish pressure, the German air force contributing in the fight against the so-called Islamic State had to relocate from Turkey to Jordan without any serious grumbling from the other NATO partners. At that moment, Germany’s policy makers acknowledged that the strong negative feelings against the Turkish president in their own populace are a German particularity, produced by more than fifty years of Turkish migration to Germany that transfers Turkey’s domestic clashes immediately into the German society, but not an all-European phenomenon. Last but not least, the elections of June 2018 signalled that Erdogan and his party were going to rule the country for years to come.
There are also quite a lot of things to lose for Germany. Ankara’s cooperation in the handling of the refugee crisis immediately comes to mind. Intelligence cooperation in the fight against returning jihadists is of almost equal importance. Turkey’s strained relations with the USA and its rapprochement with Moscow pose a threat to the coherence of NATO. On a positive note, Europe’s and Turkey’s interests may at least partly overlap in Syria, where both actors could work to prevent a renewed escalation of the fighting.
At the same time, the ongoing financial and economic crisis but also Turkey’s problem-ridden relations with the US seem to make it more willing to cooperate with Europe and Germany. For the short term, Turkey is in dire need of fresh money to restructure its private sector’s huge foreign debt. In the mid- and long term, Turkey hopes for a renegotiation of its Customs Union with the EU to secure its privileged access to European markets even if the membership process is finally terminated, to re-trigger European investment and above all to increase the ratio of high-value added production lines and products.
Nevertheless, Erdogan’s visit to Berlin itself produced mixed feelings. The Turkish side was not pleased to face open criticism, but appreciated Berlin’s good will to improve the relations. The trips that Germany’s Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Economy have made to Turkey are another proof of this, as is Angela Merkel’s participation in the Istanbul summit of Four (Germany, Turkey, France, Russia) in October 2018 that dealt with the Syrian quagmire. Unfortunately, even modest German expectations towards the release of German citizens as well as prominent members of Turkey’s civil society such as Osman Kavala from jail have not been met until today. Ankara, on the other hand, is still waiting for a clear sign in regard to the re-negotiation of the Customs Union. As things stand, there are six more months of standstill in the pipeline. Most probably Turkey will not undertake any steps concerning the prisoners prior to the local elections set for 31 March 2019. All the while, European governments have to weather the EU parliament elections scheduled for May of the coming year.
*Günter Seufert is Senior Fellow at Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik (the German Institute for International and Security Affairs).