Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will travel to Berlin this week as the guest of his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier and will also hold talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel, aimed at turning a new page in bilateral ties after a prolonged period of tension.
The visit stands in marked contrast to only a year ago, when Turkey and Germany appeared to be heading for a historic breakup as insults and accusations were being hurled back and forth. A furious Erdogan taunted German officials as “Nazis,” for example, after he and members of his administration were prevented from canvassing expatriate Turks in Germany for the constitutional referendum in April 2017 that made Erdogan Turkey’s first executive president.
Today, all of that seems to have been left in the past. Before leaving for New York for the UN General Assembly meeting, from where he will go on to Berlin, Erdogan said Sept. 23 that Turkey was seeking a new chapter with Germany.
“Our priority agenda on my visit to Germany will be completely leaving behind the period experienced in recent years in our political relations,” Erdogan said. “It will [also] be the steps that can be taken to carry our economic ties further on a mutually beneficial basis.”
Analysts say Ankara and Berlin’s deteriorating ties with Washington and Turkey’s role in Syria, especially Idlib, are also helping push Turkey and Germany together.
Dogacan Basaran from the Ankara Center for Crisis and Policy Studies maintains that the current spate of high-level Turkish-German contacts should be seen in this context. “The international situation is speeding up the Turkish-German reconciliation. Developments in Idlib in particular and the prospect of a new flood of refugees are also forcing Ankara and Berlin together,” he wrote in an article for the pro-government daily Yeni Safak.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas praised Turkey after the deal Erdogan negotiated recently with Russian President Vladimir Putin, effectively preventing a Russian-backed regime operation in Idlib. The UN had warned that such an operation would result in the largest civilian casualties to date and a new flood of refugees.
Berlin continues to lay great store by the 2016 refugee deal Turkey struck with the European Union that German officials say has been working successfully by and large.
Not surprisingly, Syria is one of the topics Erdogan is expected to concentrate on in his talks with Steinmeier and Merkel, and he is also likely to push for German support for the reconstruction of Syria. Turkey says it is vital for stabilizing the Idlib region in particular, so that a safe environment can be secured not just for the 3.5 million Syrians already there, but also for those who are in Turkey or Europe.
Some trace the deterioration of Turkish-German ties to the Gezi Park demonstrations against Erdogan and his Justice and Development Party in 2013. Erdogan accused Western countries, including Germany, of inciting the rioting.
Others say the relationship began to sour after the German Parliament adopted a resolution in 2016 that recognized the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide perpetrated by Ottoman Turks, a label Ankara rejects.
Bilateral strains peaked after the abortive coup attempt in 2016. Ankara felt Berlin did not condemn the coup quickly enough, though it was a clear attempt to depose a democratically elected government.
The arrest of German citizens, mostly of Turkish origin, for their involvement with the outlawed separatist Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) or with the movement of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen, the group blamed for masterminding the failed coup, only aggravated the situation. With Germany’s refusal to extradite hundreds of Turks accused by Ankara of involvement in the coup, and its subsequent ban on Turkish politicians from canvassing expatriate Turks, ties appeared to be heading for a wall.
Nevertheless, a combination of strategic, political and economic factors ensured that this crash did not come, despite continuing differences. The effort to normalize ties has pleased those who have a stake in the relationship, including millions of Turkish supporters of Erdogan in Germany and the Turkish and German business communities dealing with investments valued at billions of euros.
Those who have been highlighting the deteriorating state of democracy and human rights under Erdogan’s rule, however, feel betrayed.
One such person is Deniz Yucel, the German journalist of Turkish origin who spent a year behind bars in Turkey for alleged links to the PKK. He was released in February and allowed to leave the country. His unexpected release was taken as an indication that Ankara was seeking improved ties with Berlin.
Speaking after receiving a media award in Potsdam last week, Yucel said Erdogan’s invitation to Germany was “betrayal of those who want to see a free, democratic and secular Turkey.” He said this was the second betrayal by Germany, explaining that Merkel had refrained from giving sufficient support to Ankara when it was implementing democratic reforms in 2006-2007.
Accusing Merkel of being disingenuous, Yucel said she was motivated today by her fear of refugees and the interests of German companies that would be harmed if the Turkish economy went down.
While in Germany, Erdogan is expected to face large demonstrations by groups sympathetic to the PKK, which is outlawed by Turkey and Germany. Groups that accuse Ankara of arbitrarily disregarding the rights of anyone suspected of supporting the 2016 coup attempt are also expected to take to the streets.
None of this appears likely, though, to cloud a visit for which the groundwork has been prepared over the past weeks, starting with Maas’ visit to Ankara in early September. Turkish Treasury and Finance Minister Berat Albayrak, who is Erdogan’s son-in-law, was in Germany last week for high-level contacts before Erdogan’s visit. He was accompanied by Trade Minister Ruhsar Pekcan and Energy and Natural Resources Minister Fatih Sonmez.
“We have entered a new period in our bilateral relations. We want to further enhance our ties by adopting a sincere and constructive approach, by taking strategic steps,” Albayrak said after his talks with Vice Chancellor and Finance Minister Olaf Scholz and Economy and Energy Minister Peter Altimeter.
Scholz, for his part, renewed Germany’s support for Turkey’s economic stability during his press conference with Albayrak and the other ministers. “It is in our common interest to see Turkey’s stable economic development, to see that Turkey can address recent challenges in its economy,” he said, echoing previous remarks by Merkel.
In a television interview that aired Sept. 6, Merkel had said that an economically weakened Turkey was not in Germany’s interest.
There are around 7,500 German companies operating in Turkey, with the volume of bilateral trade reaching nearly $44 billion in 2017. Berlin is also interested in massive infrastructure projects, and Siemens has already won a contract for 10 fast trains.
Ankara, for its part, is looking to Germany to also help revive its dormant ties with the EU, and also wants help in overhauling the Turkey-EU customs union.
Despite the current positive atmosphere, the path to fully normalized Turkish-German ties remains strewn with pitfalls. These include Germany’s demand that its citizens jailed in Turkey on terrorism charges be released, and Turkey’s demands that Germany extradite people accused of involvement in the coup attempt.
Turkey also wants Germany to be less lenient on PKK advocacy, although it welcomes steps taken recently to curb it.
Hearing complaints about the state of democracy and human rights in Turkey is something that Erdogan and others who meet German officials will have to get used to, also, and refrain from responding abrasively.
Notwithstanding these pitfalls, big picture concerns are clearly forcing the two governments to cooperate on issues that are of vital concern to them, while pushing other concerns to the background, even if they don’t disregard them totally.
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