German-Polish European BLOG

Turkey: A new German-Polish talking point?

The relations between the European Union and Turkey which, besides Russia, is the EU’s most important neighbor, should become at least an issue of dialogue between Poland and Germany. The latter will always possess the biggest potential in the EU to engage with Turkey; meanwhile, Warsaw’s relationship with Ankara has deepened substantially in recent years.

Adam Balcer

Particularly serious tensions have developed between Turkey and Germany in recent years. Turkey launched accession negotiations with the EU in 2005, but pretty soon encountered a stalemate. Moreover, relations between Brussels and Ankara reached the lowest point in 2017. The crisis was provoked by the transformation of Turkey under the president Recep Tayyip Erdogan into a fully-fledged authoritarian regime after the failed coup d’état in July 2016. In 2017, Erdogan taunted German high-level politicians, calling them ”Nazis” after Berlin prohibited him and his ministers from canvassing expatriate Turks in Germany ahead of the Turkish constitutional referendum. However, in Autumn 2018 Germany is showing once again that it cannot afford to ignore Turkey. At the end of September, Erdogan paid an official visit to Germany at the invitation of President Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The German ruling elite received Erdogan with state honors. Besides President Steinmer, Erdogan also held talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel. During the visit, Merkel and Steinmeier criticized Erdogan about the dire state of democracy and human rights in Turkey. However, both German politicians refrained from pushing Erdogan too much in order to continue the rapprochement with Ankara. Indeed, the EU needs Turkey’s cooperation on such vital issues as the fight against terrorism and prevention of illegal migration.

It is even more important that the German political elite take into consideration the exceptional bilateral social ties with and fragile state of Turkey’s economy. Germany is home to the largest Turkish diaspora in the world (above 3 million people originating at least partly from Turkey). Their share of the entire German population approaches 5 percent.  Moreover, Germany occupies the first place on the list of Turkey’s trade partners, accounting for almost 10% of the trade volume. According to the Central Bank of Turkey, between 2003-2017 Germany accounted for almost 7% of the FDI inflows. Germany also provides Turkey – after the EU- with the largest amount of official development aid (almost 15% of the total ODA received by Ankara). Finally, German tourists account for more than 10% of foreign visitors to Turkey that gives them the second place. It is worth recalling that the total contribution (indirect and direct) of tourism to Turkey’s GDP approaches 12%.

Certainly Poland cannot match Germany as far as the strength of ties with Turkey is concerned. Nevertheless, an impressive increase of cooperation between Poland and Turkey has taken place in recent years. The Polish and Turkish ministries of foreign affairs meet regularly within the framework of a trilingual mechanism with their Romanian partner. In October 2017, President Erdogan visited Poland. It was the first official visit of the Turkish president in the EU country after the failed coup d’état. It was not accidental that the Polish government refrained from criticism of the authoritarian slide in Turkey and certain Polish politicians even showed some understanding for the hard line undertaken by Erdogan against the real and alleged plotters.  Furthermore, the number of Polish tourists visiting Turkey is bigger than the combined number of Italians and Spaniards arriving in the country. Poles account for almost 2% of all foreign visitors., Their number is just slightly smaller than the number of Frenchmen travelling to Turkey, a huge part of which are of Turkish origin.  Poland also became an important destination for the Turkish students (full-time and Erasmus). According to the most recent data, around 1500 Turkish students are registered on a full-time basis at Polish universities. Poland has gained the position as the most popular country for the Turkish students participating in the Erasmus program — around one-fourth of all Turkish Erasmus students studied in Poland. The trade between Poland and Turkey- particularly Turkish exports – has increased substantially in recent years. Currently, the Polish share in Turkey’s trade turnover oscillates around 2% and the volume of Turkish exports to Poland is almost on the same level as Turkish exports to Russia. Lastly, Turkey gained for the first time an important place in the Polish bilateral ODA. In 2016-2017 Poland assigned ODA worth almost 50 million USD for Turkey (close to 15% of Polish bilateral aid).

However, as Konrad Zasztowt points out “Warsaw built a good relationship with Ankara. [..] but now they may face challenges. From Warsaw’s point of view, the litmus test for Ankara’s policy regarding East Central Europe will remain Turkey’s stance towards Ukraine. From the Polish perspective, Turkey’s interest in cooperation with Russia on Syria raises doubts — will the price be official recognition of the annexation of Crimea and normalization with Russia on the Kremlin’s own terms?” On the other hand,  Günter Seufert underlines that “nowhere else in Europe has the political community and public opinion displayed stronger disapproval of Turkey’s turn to authoritarianism than in Germany. [..] However, because of the fact that “There are also quite a lot of things to lose for Germany.” Berlin decided to “bring out the red carpet for the Turkish president despite a still very negative public opinion. [..] 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”. This visit shows, that the German and Polish outreaches to Turkey will constitute a difficult task due to an authoritarian slide, its rising economic vulnerability and multipolar foreign policy.