Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is scheduled to fly to Berlin on Thursday on his first formal state visit to the German capital, where he will be received with full honors by his German counterpart Frank Walter Steinmeier. Coming amid a looming economic crisis and a meltdown in relations with Washington, Erdogan’s trip is seen as critical to Ankara’s efforts to restore Turkey’s credibility with foreign investors and sagging diplomatic prestige among its Western allies. Above all, it's viewed as an opportunity to turn the page with Germany, the country that arguably has the most leverage over Turkey. Erdogan’s likening of its leaders to “Nazis,” jailing of German citizens for political reasons and meddling in Germany’s internal politics have left an indelible mark.
But Erdogan’s hopeful talk of leaving the “past period completely behind” in comments to reporters en route to New York this week is premature.
Erdogan’s visit has sharply divided Germany, Turkey’s second largest trading partner and home to some 3.5 million people who trace their origins to Turkey.
Christian Lidner, the leader of the opposition Free Democrats, and top leaders from the Greens party were among those who spurned a meal with Turkey’s strongman to be hosted by Steinmeier on Friday at the Bellevue palace in Berlin. Lidner said he “did not want to be part of Erdogan propaganda,” echoing widespread disdain felt for the Turkish president over his ruthless suppression of democratic freedoms.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was the target of Erdogan’s Nazi remarks, will not be going to Bellevue either. It remains unclear whether she was not invited or declined. Merkel is, however, slated to meet Erdogan for lunch on Friday following his talks with Steinmeier and then for further talks on Saturday before he flies to Cologne to inaugurate a mosque there.
A source with close knowledge of the planning of the visit said the messages from Steinmeier and Merkel may not be to Erdogan’s liking. However much Erdogan wants it to mark normalization in ties, “it will be made very clear that the relationship is far from normal,” the source observed to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity because of the delicate nature of the issue.
Marc Pierini, a former EU ambassador to Turkey and non-resident fellow at Carnegie Europe, concurred. He told Al-Monitor, “The temptation to simply say, ‘elections are over, the presidential regime is in place, let's move on and go back to normal’ is clearly present in Ankara but may lead to disappointment.”
In a clear sign of his desire to fix the relationship, Erdogan has toned down the nasty rhetoric that followed Germany’s interdiction of electoral campaigning on its soil for the April 2017 referendum on substituting Turkey’s parliamentary system with an all-powerful executive presidency.
The source confirmed that Turkey had also quietly released “two or three” German citizens over the past few weeks. Following on the earlier release of Turkish-German journalists Deniz Yucel and Mesale Tolu, both jailed on dubious terror charges, the move is seen as a sweetener ahead of the Erdogan visit. “There is a certain openness, and my guess is that Erdogan will listen,” the source added. Moreover, Turkey’s differences with Washington, notably over the continued detention of North Carolina pastor Andrew Brunson, have come as something of a boon. “He really needs the EU and Germany now, because they are the only ones he can turn to,” the source said.
Steinmeier will likely be asking Erdogan some tough questions about the dismal state of Turkish democracy. The cases of more than 100 journalists languishing in Turkish prisons and that of Turkey’s best known philanthropist, Osman Kavala, jailed for nearly a year now on thinly evidenced terror charges, “will be part of the conversation, among others,” the source asserted. “And if there is no follow-up, the space for cooperation will be limited.” The plight of an unspecified number of German prisoners — the source referred to them as “a handful” — will be an immediate test of Turkey’s good-will.
What Germany is looking for, however, goes well beyond individual cases and is “a general restoration of the rule of law.”
Erdogan will also be reminded of the “extreme polarization” of Turkish Germans and be urged to “help reduce it," a polite way of saying Turkey should stop stirring trouble among Turks in Germany, and stop targeting Turkish dissidents in exile there, including prominent opposition journalist Can Dundar, who is on Turkey's wanted list.
Ankara tends to focus on the majority of Turkish Germans voting for Erdogan and his ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). Among Turks in Germany who were eligible to vote and went to the polling booth in the June 24 general election, some 65% cast their ballots in the AKP's favor. But turnout was a mere 47%. “They represent a small proportion of the Turks living here,” the source said.
Mirroring cleavages inside Turkey, a good half of Turkish Germans, roughly 1.5 million, including several hundred thousand Kurds and Alevis, are believed to fiercely oppose Erdogan. They are expected to stage large demonstrations in Berlin and Cologne.
Despite Berlin’s patronizing stance, Erdogan may well believe he holds some pretty big cards as well. Turkey is host to more than 3.5 million Syrian refugees. The bulk are desperate to go to Europe and tens of thousands arrived in Germany when Merkel declared a now shelved open-door policy for Syrian refugees in 2015.
Faced with a severe backlash from her right-wing opponents, Merkel was forced to make a U-turn, spearheading a Faustian deal with Turkey in March 2016 that essentially boils down to Turkey serving as a holding pen for the refugees. In exchange, Ankara pockets billions of euros — some 3 billion so far — from the EU.
A fresh wave of refugees is poised to head for Turkey if Syrian regime forces mount a large-scale offensive against Idlib, the last remaining Syrian rebel stronghold, which borders Turkey.
Pierini cautioned that Erdogan might be overestimating Turkey’s leverage in this regard. “A potential new wave of refugees from Syria is flagged from time to time by Ankara as a threat. In reality, the issues raised by a massive wave of refugees would be exactly the same for the EU,” because both suffer from “refugee fatigue.” More critically, “There is a mutual necessity to screen returning jihadis who could hide among the refugees.” This requires “cooperation,” not “confrontation” between Turkey and the EU, Pierini concluded.
In any case, according to the source who briefed Al-Monitor on the state visit, while Erdogan may have “played” with the deal in his public remarks, “The refugee agreement was never put in question.”
Squeezed by a weakening lira, Turkey is in greater need than ever for a second 3-billion-euro tranche that is to be disbursed. As for financial aid from Germany, the source said, “A bailout is not in the cards.”