Angela Merkel’s Turkey Challenge

Main Image Credit Angela Merkel is going to have to face the challenge posed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey. Courtesy of the German Chancellor's Office

The incoming German coalition government will have much on its plate. But repairing or even sustaining relations with Turkey is one of Berlin’s most urgent challenges.

Last week’s German elections have shaken things up in Berlin. Angela Merkel will stay on as Chancellor, but she is weakened by the heavy losses suffered by her party, the Christian Democrats, mostly to the far-right Alternative for Germany.

She will also have to form a new coalition. The Social Democrats (SPD), her partners in government for eight of the past twelve years, will not be joining this time so she is set to enter negotiations to create a so-called Jamaica Coalition with the Liberals and the Greens.

Berlin’s foreign policy looks likely, therefore, to change, with Germany’s crisis-hit relations with Turkey almost certain to top the agenda.

During the campaign, candidates sought to outdo each other in harshly criticising President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s government. In return, Erdogan called Germany’s leading parties – including Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) – ‘enemies’ of Turkey, and warned citizens against travelling to Germany.

Despite senior Turkish officials expressing confidence that the crisis will blow over now the elections and its rhetoric are over, this is highly unlikely. At least for Germany, the rift with Ankara goes much deeper and has the potential to fundamentally alter their relationship, which includes strategic, economic and deep societal and cultural ties.

Germany and Turkey are NATO allies and key actors in the European refugee and migration crisis; Germany is Turkey’s most important trade partner and there are more than 2.9 million Turks and descendants of Turkish migrants in Germany.

For Germany, the rift with Ankara has the potential to fundamentally alter their relationship, which includes strategic, economic and deep societal and cultural ties

It is true that criticising Erdogan has a certain electoral appeal in Germany; in surveys conducted in March, before the electoral campaign was in full swing, up to 75% of Germans said they wanted Berlin to be tougher on Turkey.

And if the Greens’ leader, Cem Özdemir, one of the most vocal critics of Ankara, is made foreign minister as might be the case, the relationship could become even more fraught.

In Germany’s view, the crisis is due to Turkey’s continued slide towards authoritarianism. Erdogan is seen as not just eroding his country’s democratic system, but also attacking Berlin’s interests and even individual German citizens ­– such as the arrest of twelve German citizens ­– in ways that are unacceptable, especially among allies.

Berlin considers these arrests of human rights activists and journalists to be on trumped-up, politically motivated charges. They are accused of crimes such as inciting violence, supporting terrorism and having ties to either the Kurdish Workers Party or the Gulen Movement, which according to Erdogan was behind last year’s failed coup.

A furious Erdogan denounced the ban on his campaign rallies in Germany as akin to ‘Nazi practices’ – a jibe that is considered totally unacceptable in German politics

Turkish authorities have repeatedly refused consular access to the detainees and ignored demands for their release; this prompted the German Foreign Ministry to amend its travel advice for those holidaying in Turkey (some 5.5 million per year) to warn of arbitrary arrests. In May, Turkey handed Interpol a list of 681 German companies – ranging from Daimler to humble doner-kebab shops – it accused of being linked to terrorism. Although the list has since been withdrawn, the resulting German outrage lingers.

Ankara has also on several occasions denied German parliamentarians permission to visit Bundeswehr troops stationed at the Konya and Incirlik military bases in Turkey. At the former, 30 German soldiers are part of a NATO mission to defend Turkey against missile attacks from neighbouring Syria.

At the latter, 260 troops were operating six Tornados and a tanker aircraft as part of the international coalition against Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS). As a result, Berlin relocated the Incirlik contingent to Jordan.

The tension dates back to June 2016, after the Bundestag voted for a non-binding resolution to recognise as genocide the killing of more than one million Armenians by Ottoman Turks in 1915.

A month later, Erdogan was disappointed that the German government did not condemn the attempted military coup staged against him in strong enough terms. He was angered further when Berlin criticised his subsequent crackdown on against the coup’s alleged supporters and restrictions on freedom of speech and the press.

Adding fuel to the fire, Ankara railed against the decision by Berlin to grant asylum to thousands Turks fleeing this post-coup wave of arrests.

Then, earlier this year, the German government banned Turkish politicians from holding campaign rallies in German cities ahead of the April constitutional referendum to expand Erdogan’s presidential powers.

Turkey handed Interpol a list of 681 German companies – ranging from Daimler to humble doner-kebab shops – it accused of being linked to terrorism. Although the list has since been withdrawn, the resulting German outrage lingers

About 1.2 million Turks living in Germany are eligible to vote in Turkish elections – an important, and generally pro-Erdogan, constituency. A furious Erdogan denounced the ban as akin to ‘Nazi practices’ – the kind of jibe that is considered totally unacceptable in German politics.

Among the many foreign policy challenges facing the new German government, the crisis with Turkey is special. Ordinarily, Germany likes to couch its foreign policy in relation to the EU. The Turkish challenge is, however, different: the issues at stake are first and foremost about German interests.

Merkel’s government may look for support from its European allies and other partners, either to help to put pressure on Ankara or act as mediators. During the election campaign, both Merkel and the SPD’s Martin Schulz vowed to seek an end to Turkish accession talks with the EU. The option of stopping EU funding for Turkey, including what remains of the €3 billion pledged as part of the EU–Turkey migrant deal brokered by Merkel in March 2016, was also brought up.

Both of these measures, however, require a consensus that will be difficult to achieve among all EU members for it could precipitate the end to the migrant deal with Turkey.

Ultimately, Berlin may therefore have to look for ways it can bring Germany’s own power to bear on Ankara. This would mainly include economic levers. With an annual volume of over €35 billion, Germany is Turkey’s most important trade partner and accounts for nearly 10% of all Turkish exports. Germans also account for a substantial part of Turkey’s economically-important tourist flows.

The big question, then, is how far Berlin is willing to use this leverage, given that since post-1945, Germany has been reluctant to resort to coercive measures, especially unilaterally.

Still, unless the German citizens are released and Erdogan significantly tones down his rhetoric, Merkel may be forced to take action. In any case, relations between the two countries are likely to be permanently damaged.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author's, and do not reflect those of RUSI or any other institution.


Dr Tobias Borck

Research Fellow for Middle East Security Studies

International Security Studies

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