Turkey Pulse

Germany's patience with Erdogan may be running out

Article Summary
The latest moves by the German government against Turkey suggest Germany's patience with President Erdogan may have run its course.

Turkish-German relations may be moving toward a point of no return. Despite its continuing angry tone toward Berlin, though, Ankara is visibly worried that the deteriorating state of its ties with Germany could have serious negative effects on Turkey’s already shaky economy and is trying to contain this.

Too much has happened between the sides over the past year for this effort to succeed the way Ankara wants it to. Germany is signaling instead that it is abandoning its policy of appeasement and will opt for punitive measures against Turkey.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier has also weighed in to support this by saying it is “a question of the self-respect of our land to send a meaningful message [to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan].”

Erdogan, however, is clearly not interested in toning down his harsh anti-German rhetoric, or in meeting Berlin’s demands regarding democracy and human rights in Turkey. His angry tone against that country, which he says is harboring plotters who tried to overthrow him in last year’s failed coup attempt, goes down well with his support base in Turkey and, ironically, also among Turks in Germany.

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Ahmet Acet, who served as Turkey’s ambassador to Berlin in 2008-2011, believes the blame for the state of Turkish-German ties today lies mostly with Erdogan’s populist outbursts in recent months.

“Germans are a patient and pragmatic people who are aware of the importance of Turkey,” Acet — who has since retired — told Al-Monitor. “But the harsh accusations and the abuse they faced showed that their patience goes only so far,” he added. 

Acet said the parliamentary elections to be held in Germany in September were also putting a lot of pressure on German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is trying to contain gains by the far right — which makes it more difficult for her to appear lenient on Turkey.

The government of Erdogan’s acolyte, Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, is trying hard to reassure German companies that it is “business as usual” in Turkey. Flanked by Economy Minister Nihat Zeybekci and EU Minister Omer Celik, Yildirim told German CEOs in Turkey on July 27 that their investments in Turkey were safe.

“It is very important to us that you are not a part of this tension and do not suffer any damage from the events,” Yildirim told representatives of Bosch, Siemens, Mercedes, the Metro Group, Thyssenkrupp and others.

German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told a press conference in Berlin July 20 — after the arrest in Turkey of German human rights consultant Peter Steudtner and five other human rights activists, including Amnesty International’s Turkey director Idil Eser — that “they needed their policies toward Turkey to go in a new direction.”

“We need to be clearer than we have been until now, so those responsible in Ankara understand that such policies are not without consequences,” Gabriel said.

Berlin is also angry over the arrest in Turkey of the Turkish-German journalist Deniz Yucel, who is accused of “inciting hatred and terrorist propaganda.”

Gabriel also underlined the risks Germans visiting Turkey could face. Berlin has complained about the difficulties German Embassy officials faced when trying to visit Yucel and Steudtner in prison. Berlin is clearly telling its citizens that if they fall afoul of the Turkish authorities, Germany may not be able to help them.

Gabriel added that Berlin could no longer guarantee German corporate investment in Turkey. He was responding to accusations by Ankara that German companies, including giants like Daimler and BASF, had links to Fethullah Gulen, the self-exiled Islamic preacher who is accused of masterminding last year’s failed coup against Erdogan.

Matters also took another serious turn for Turkey with the revelation that Berlin wants the European Commission to suspend work on updating the EU-Turkey Customs Union. Berlin says continuing with this “would send the wrong signal” to Ankara.

Nevertheless, Berlin has refused to back calls from Europe to end Turkey’s EU accession talks because developments in Turkey are at odds with EU principles. It cited pragmatic considerations, such as the 2016 Turkey-EU migration deal, as reasons why dialogue channels with Ankara must be kept open.

Its desire to see the Customs Union talks with Turkey suspended may be a sign that this approach is changing too.

Recalling the economic crisis with Russia after Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet in 2015, Ankara clearly does not want to go down that path with Germany. Russia’s retaliatory sanctions were too much to bear and forced Erdogan, in the end, to apologize to President Vladimir Putin over the jet incident.

Turkey’s economic ties with Germany outweigh its economic ties with Russia, and many question if Ankara can bear the brunt of German sanctions. Germany is Turkey’s No. 1 trading partner, with the volume of trade reaching nearly 38 billion euros in 2015.

Germany is also the second-largest foreign investor in Turkey, with investments over 13.3 billion euros since 1980. According to official German sources, the number of companies in Turkey that have received German equity investment is over 6,800. These include companies owned by Turks in Germany.

Economy Minister Zeybekci provided a striking example of just how the latest German moves may have hit their mark. Zeybekci said those who sent the list of German companies with alleged links to Gulen’s FETO group to Berlin and Interpol had acted “irresponsibly.” 

“A mistake such as this will definitely never happen again,” he added.

Rather than placating the German side, the remarks by Yildirim and Zeybekci appear to have convinced Berlin that pressure on Ankara is working.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schauble, who has compared Erdogan’s Turkey to Communist East Germany, upped the ante by announcing that they would also review future arms sales to Turkey.

Turkish-German ties have been strained since last year’s failed coup attempt following which Berlin refused to extradite alleged coup plotters to Turkey on the grounds that it has not been furnished with concrete evidence. Berlin has also decided to grant asylum to many who say they face persecution in Turkey.

Name-calling between the sides started after German authorities prevented Erdogan and Turkish government ministers from canvassing Turks in Germany for the April 16 referendum, which aimed to make Erdogan the unchecked executive president of Turkey.

Erdogan responded by accusing German politicians of behaving like Nazis. Turkey also responded by refusing to grant visitation rights to German deputies who wished to meet with German soldiers stationed at the Incirlik air base, where they are assisting the US-led coalition against the Islamic State.

Germany subsequently decided to relocate its forces in Incirlik to Jordan. In a move that angered Germany further, Turkey also prevented German deputies recently from visiting their soldiers stationed at the NATO base in Konya.

Turkey also complains that Germany is lenient toward supporters of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is outlawed in Turkey and which Berlin also says is a terrorist organization. Erdogan insists that Berlin’s policy on Fethullah Gulen Terror Organization fugitives and PKK supporters makes Germany a terrorism-supporting state.

Germany, however, is not only a strategic economic partner for Turkey but also hosts millions of Turks, and this complicates the situation for both sides. The two countries are so inextricably entwined that many believe a major breakdown in ties is highly improbable.

Acet said, “The Mercedes and Volkswagens in that country will ultimately prevent this from happening.”

Nevertheless, there is still plenty of room for ties to deteriorate further — since neither side is prepared to climb down from its demands — and eventually reach a point of no return.

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Found in: ankara, amnesty international, fethullah gulen, berlin, human rights in turkey, binali yildirim, angela merkel

Semih Idiz is a columnist for Al-Monitor's Turkey Pulse. He is a journalist who has been covering diplomacy and foreign policy issues for major Turkish newspapers for 30 years. His articles have been published in The Financial Times, The Times of London, Mediterranean Quarterly and Foreign Policy magazine.

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